Carlos Bacca and the making of modern football’s most authentic poacher

Carlos Bacca and the making of modern football’s most authentic poacher

ONE OF THE MOST INESCAPABLE TRUTHS IN THE WORLD is the stark contrast between civilisations. There will always be the unapologetic difference in the comfort in which people live their lives. It holds no regard for geographical barriers, and is a form of brutal contrast that underlines to some just how lucky they are, and how unfortunate the rest can be.

It is a common factor that encapsulates everything in modern society, the beautiful game being no exception. The life of a footballer in Europe is more often than not a smoother and more rewarding ride than that of someone plying their trade on the browned pitches of South America.

The quaint little village of Puerto Colombia sits along the coastline, with the usual array of colourful houses bathed in the relentless Colombian sunlight. The village’s inhabitants are often responsible for keeping several jobs simply to make ends meet, and because of Puerto Colombia’s coastal location, it is common for many to work as fishermen despite the limited income at times. It is a sharp contrast to a typical day in Europe’s finest locations, requiring sheer determination to break free from the shackles of a disadvantaged lifestyle. This is the starting point for one of football’s greatest rags to riches stories.

Carlos Bacca was born to Gilberto Bacca and Eloisa Ahumada, in the Barranquilla metropolitan area. Since his family came from a poor background, Bacca was forced to handle multiple jobs throughout his early life, including working as a part-time bus conductor for a small local route, and also selling fish in his home village. The Colombian was raised in a devout religious household, and it is certain that his faith would have been relied on to carry him through his testing childhood.

But no matter what profession Carlos Bacca found himself in, he held only one true passion: football. Becoming a world-renowned sportsman after growing up in a struggling family would only have been a distant dream for Bacca, perhaps when he allowed his thoughts to wander while resting between his various shifts.

However, he wouldn’t let anything prevent him from pursuing his dream, and turned out for trials with Atlético Junior at the age of 23. Despite being a late developer, the club were impressed with the striker and handed him his first ever professional contract. However, as time progressed, the Colombian found regular game time extremely difficult to come by, so he found himself shipped out on loan to Barranquilla in 2007.

The club had only been founded just two years prior and were competing in the Categoría Primera B. The mixture of playing away from watchful eyes and a different standard of football proved to be a healthy one for Bacca, who found the back of the net 12 times in 27 appearances.

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Despite the positive performances, the striker still struggled to hold down a regular starting berth at his parent club. As a consequence, Bacca was cast out on loan again – this time at Venezuelan club Minerven, for a season. The Colombian equalled his goal tally from the previous campaign, with more impressive predatory performances.

His tally saw Minerven finish second in their league, but Atlético Junior would continue to make him wait, as he spent a third season out on loan, this time returning to Barranquilla. Despite only making 19 appearances, Bacca tucked away 14 goals, impressing the coaching staff at his parent club sufficiently this time around.

In his first professional season at Junior, Bacca defied the odds by earning himself regular starts, as well as going on to become the highest goalscorer in the 2009 Copa Colombia. Where others may have dropped off, the striker continued to improve, and regularly put in dominant performances in front of goal the next year. His strikes saw Junior claim the top spot in Categoría Primera A, and earned him the top goalscorer award for the season. After a brief off-season break, Bacca hit the ground running once more as he helped his team win the league once again, as well as being able to retain the highest goalscorer award.

His composure in the penalty area saw various European clubs cast their eyes over him, including the likes of Chievo and Lokomotiv Moscow. At one point, it appeared Bacca’s transfer to the Russian capital had been finalised, but after Lokomotiv opted for the services of Felipe Caicedo, Bacca found himself travelling to Belgium.

Club Brugge paid a measly €1.5 million for his signing, and handed him a three-year contract. Upon his arrival, the Colombian expressed that his wish to play in Europe had been fulfilled, and perhaps allowed himself a moment to reflect on how his career had taken an upward spiral. From being shipped out on loan in his home country several times, to now playing for one of Belgium’s top clubs, Bacca had shown his true promise and now had the opportunity to make a name for himself on an entirely different continent.

After his signing at the beginning of 2012, the player only had half a season to demonstrate his abilities. He made his debut on 21 January 2012, in a 1-0 defeat to Mechelen. However, through the next three months Bacca found his game time extremely limited, as the season gradually ticked away. When Club Brugge were battling in their final fixtures of their campaign, the coaching staff turned to Bacca to provide the goals to fire the team into a European spot.

On 15 April, Bacca scored his first goal in the Belgian Pro League, which handed his team an important 1-0 victory over Gent. In the last game of the season, the Colombian striker then bagged himself two more goals in a 3-2 win, which secured Brugge a European spot. After the successful end to the season for both club and player, Bacca entered his second year in Belgium with heightened expectations.

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The 2012/13 summer transfer window saw Joseph Akpala depart the club, and new manager Georges Leekens gradually became impressed by what he saw from the Colombian. The renewed focus on the striker saw Bacca flourish, and his place in the team was effectively guaranteed every week. At the beginning of the Belgian season, the striker demonstrated his confidence with a scintillating performance against minnows Beerschot.

As Beerschot attempted to play out from the back, they handed the ball away to one of Bacca’s teammates, who threaded the Colombian through on goal. Bacca sprinted clear, and as he neared his target, delicately lobbed the onrushing goalkeeper and found the back of the net. This classy finish would be the first of many throughout a successful season for the hitman.

However, as January 2013 rolled along, the darker side of Bacca’s determination showed itself to the world. Having scored 18 goals to date, and after realising that some of Europe’s largest clubs had asked for his services, Bacca handed in a transfer request. Amid the growing controversy, it appeared that the player was simply trying to secure the best deal for himself – and, in a surprising turn of events, signed a new contract that saw him remain in Bruges.

After the end of the season, Bacca finished as the league’s top goalscorer, and picked up the player of the year accolade. An impressive record of 28 goals in 45 league appearances during his time in Belgium meant that his eventual transfer in the summer was entirely predictable.

In July 2013, Spanish club Sevilla secured Bacca’s services for €7 million. After a successful pre-season for his new club, including goals against Barcelona SC and Mladost Podgorica in the Europa League qualifying round, the Colombian made his La Liga debut on 18 August. Despite the 3-1 loss, Bacca’s performance leading the line proved his natural ability at carving out chances for both himself and his teammates. In September, Bacca bagged himself his first two goals in the Spanish league, both against Rayo Vallecano in a 4-1 victory.

The Colombian’s astute positional awareness in the penalty area allowed him to score 14 goals in the league throughout the season in 35 appearances – including both goals in a 2-1 victory over giants Real Madrid. He was also able to help his side to Europa League glory.

In his team’s quarter-final second-leg tie against Porto, Bacca scored the clinching third goal in a 4-1 win, which led his team to an eventual 4-2 aggregate victory and a place in the semi-finals. Sevilla were drawn against compatriots Valencia, and Bacca found the back of the net in a 2-0 first-leg win that helped the team reach the final.

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The last stage of the competition proved to be a boring 0-0 draw, but the Spaniards clinched the title on penalties, with Bacca also converting from the spot. After the success of his first season, Spanish publication Marca voted the Colombian as the best signing of the season – before he was also voted the season’s best player from the Americas, pipping the likes of Ángel Di María and Neymar to the accolade.

The late bloomer from Colombia had broken onto the European stage and seized the eyes of the world as his goalscoring efforts saw him become greatly sought-after again. Bacca stayed in Sevilla for one more season as the Spaniards retained their Europa League trophy, thanks to a 3-2 victory over Ukrainian side Dnipro, with the Colombian leading the line and scoring twice.

However, as prestigious and ambitious a club as Sevilla are, once one of Italy’s giants comes calling, it is close to impossible to turn down. In July 2015, AC Milan announced the signing of Bacca after activating his €30 million buyout clause.

The striker made his debut for the Italian giants in a friendly victory over Inter in China, and made his competitive debut shortly after in the third round of the Coppa Italia. His first goal for his new club took place at the San Siro, in a 2-1 home win against Empoli; Bacca had finally well and truly hit the heights of the football world. On 19 September, the Colombian scored his first brace for Milan, in a narrow 3-2 win over Palermo. His confidence in front of goal, coupled with the tricky wingers fielded by Milan, all played to Bacca’s strengths, culminating in one of Serie A’s most self-assured finishes.

AC Milan took on Carpi in the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia, and Bacca stood poised on the shoulder of the last man. A through ball found its way to him, and he sprinted towards goal, lifting his head only once to settle his aim. He saw that the Carpi goalkeeper had rushed out at his feet, but one deft touch took it around him and freed up the target. However, rather than simply slotting the ball home, Bacca had the sheer audacity to finish off the move with a rabona finish.

Bacca’s first season under the San Siro floodlights ended with 18 goals and five assists in 38 appearances, and the second year looked a promising prospect for the Colombian. In Vincenza Montella’s new system, Bacca would be deployed as a lone striker, and his cold-hearted precision in front of goal saw him begin his second campaign in Italy promisingly. However, football is a cruel game, and a slight drop of form can see a player dropped at any time. After 31 games saw 13 goals and just one assist for Bacca, he would find himself shipped out on loan to Villarreal for this season.

Despite the late development and constant transfers to some of the world’s largest clubs, Bacca remains one of the sport’s last true poachers, and his goalscoring abilities should quickly see him retain his place as one of Europe’s deadliest forwards. Despite the future of Colombian football looking uncertain at times, what’s guaranteed is that the career of Carlos Bacca has exceeded even his wildest dreams growing up in poverty in Puerto Colombia.

By Dan Davis  

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