Carlos Valderrama and the moment I fell in love with Colombian football

Carlos Valderrama and the moment I fell in love with Colombian football

“Viva Colombia!” roared the Colombian commentator amidst an ecstatic overdrive of barely audible screams. On the English version that the teenage me was watching at the time, Barry Davies we equally stunned. “Unbelievable!” he yelled. And after a momentary pause, fleetingly lost for words, he repeated it: “Unbelievable. How quickly can despair become delight?”

It was a remarkable moment, following a game of almost nothing, and yet it had a profound impact on me. A match so short on incident, save for these frantic closing moments, isn’t the typical game to make such a lasting impression on someone. And yet the astonishing final minutes of Colombia’s group match with West Germany at the 1990 World Cup caused me to fall helplessly in love with Colombian football. 

Not only the drama of the moment, but the sheer blissful beauty and the utterly unexpected nature of it tugged at my footballing heart, dragging it from the prosaic world of 4-4-2 and getting stuck in, and opened up a whole new world of neat triangles, crisp quick passing, a languid loving of the ball that left opponents confused and confounded.

Colombia had been moments away from securing qualification for the knockout rounds at Italia 90, only for Pierre Littbarski to score what seemed a certain winner in the final minute of the match. Colombia were down and out. Two minutes of stoppage time was all they had to save themselves. 

But two minutes was more than enough for the mesmeric Carlos Valderrama to switch through the gears and combine with Freddy Rincón in a series of lightning-quick passes that simply sliced through the German defence as though it was not even there. Rincón’s goal sealed this moment, but it was crafted by the boots and brain of El Pibe Valderrama. With this ability to switch it on at will and scythe through what was an excellent team on their way to World Cup glory, Valderrama had me transfixed.

Sure, my eyes had been turned many times before. Previous World Cups had dazzled my eyes with Brazil and France and Denmark and Argentina, but most of those had been predictable to some extent. Denmark aside, they were all teams expected to amaze in most tournaments. But Colombia? This was a whole new ball game. Just where had this come from?

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West Germany had won their first two matches in the group, and while Colombia hadn’t been particularly impressive, they only needed a point from this final game to qualify for the last 16 and the knockout rounds. The match had been played in such a manner throughout, as though the inevitability of the shared prize meant there was little need to push for more.

At the time I had seemed that the game had been a whole lot of nothing. The ball was played around by the Colombians in what looks now to be at times something akin to a rondo in the midst of a vital World Cup match. On looking back, however, I can see it for what it was: a magical display of quick passing triangles, of caressing the ball from player to player, maintaining a perpetual motion that left the talented Germans chasing shadows, apparently outclassed by the Colombian’s short passing. 

Long before tiki-taka was a thing, there was toke-toke, a Colombian style of pass and move, with the playmaker dropping as deep as the defensive line to pick up the ball. It’s a style that invokes the hypnotic rhythm of Colombian salsa. It’s the rhythm of Barranquilla, the base of Colombian football since the mid-1980s. 

In 1990, Colombian football had been on a steady rise, with domestic standards improving and some of the top South American footballers playing in the nation. That this was all funded and fuelled by the money laundering of the drug lords was clear, with the cartels effectively running the country. The term “Locolombia” was coined in this era with some justification, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this merely added to the exoticism; a mystique with a very real whiff of danger.

The team was led by Francisco Maturana, a coach very much ahead of his time who focused the team massively on Valderrama and the possession football he was ideally suited to. Such a mesmerising player, with his astonishing hair and hypnotic passing he kept whole stadiums in his thrall when he took the ball. Tim Vickery once described him as “a player who always had the ball, and never had the ball.” As soon as he received it the ball was gone again, the one-touch metronome never pausing, never lingering, always in motion.

Read  |  The magic and the madness of Faustino Asprilla

Under Maturana’s leadership, Colombia qualified for their first World Cup since 1962, with a squad largely based on the hugely successful Atlético Nacional and América de Cali.  While the greats of the 1990s were still to come through – the likes of Faustino Asprilla and Adolfo Valencia, whose cutting edge was missing from this 1990 side – alongside Valderrama and Rincón there was a squad with a solid defence, modern attacking full-backs and, in René Higuita, a goalkeeper who was as captivating as anyone on the pitch.  

The West Germans may not have been captivated, so much as unable to impose themselves on the game at all. They simply couldn’t get the ball. Having already qualified, they may not have been at full strength for this game, but such was the domination of the Colombians it mattered little. 

Colombia’s plan to simply keep the ball away from danger for the remainder of the match, however, was flawed, and their reluctance to actually attack kept things goalless. West Germany would, of course, have enough possession at times to push forwards. A minute from time, Littbarski beat Higuita at his near post, and Colombia were out. “In many ways it’s a shame,” said Barry Davies on commentary. “Because if they had wanted to play, they would have been a decoration for the last 16.” 

They had wanted to play, though, just not in the way out northern European eyes would perceive it. It had spectacularly backfired, however. Davies had bemoaned Valderrama for contributing little and doing his team a disservice, but that was to miss the purpose of his contribution. The plan hadn’t been to attack; it had been to control. And Valderrama did that for 89 of the 90 minutes, before the moment it had threatened to all go wrong.

The clocked ticked beyond the 90th minute as the match restarted, and now Colombia simply had to score. It was as though the challenge stirred them into sudden action. As though they felt slighted at the imposition and the impunity of it all. It was as if they collectively thought to themselves, “So you want to test us, do you? You want us to score now? Ok, no hay problema.”

Colombia played the ball out from the back to Valderrama in midfield, whose swift turn suddenly put his side on the offensive. He and Rincón, the two most potent attacking threats in the team, then played a few quick passes, pinging it from one to the other.  Eduardo Galeano describes this movement in Football in Sun and Shadow as “yours and mine, mine and yours, touch after touch,” with the Germans unable to even come close to the ball. 

Read  |  René Higuita: the dribbles, the flair, the controversy and the scorpion

Before you knew it, Rincón had ambled into space and Valderrama’s exquisite pass split the German defence asunder to find him. Rincón, clean through on goal, simply nudged the ball softly between the onrushing Bodo Illgner’s legs to score. It had all happened to fast that it took a moment to take it in.

The Colombians were going crazy on the pitch, in the stands and in the commentary box. “Viva Colombia!” was the cry on Colombian television, as that same message flashed on the screen in the simple multi-coloured graphics of a rudimentary computer game. 

The sheer audacity of their ability to just flick a switch, change mindset in an instant and, in such a vital moment, to score what was in some ways a simple goal, but one that was born of the Colombian footballing mentality and its rhythm, was glorious to me. To have that ability stored up ready for it if was needed was one thing; to actually do it when given only moments to save your World Cup was quite another.

My newfound fondness for the Colombians was only enhanced by the way they were subsequently knocked out by Cameroon, thanks to Higuita’s mistake “as big as a house”. It simply made them all the more lovable in the way only flawed genius can be. 

What came in 1993, with that seismic 5-0 victory in Argentina heralding the arrival of Asprilla to the world stage, and the disaster of the 1994 World Cup and its tragic aftermath, did nothing but enhance the allure.  When Higuita then unveiled his scorpion kick at Wembley and Asprilla wandered into St James’ Park through a blizzard to bewitch and beguile, my admiration was absolute.

Colombian football took on the contrasting images of chaotic, calamitous and yet glorious heroes in my mind, all played out with an exuberance, swagger and style that has left me yearning for success someday, somehow. A love ignited by one astonishing, vital yet unflustered passing move, and by Carlos Valderrama, the man whose genius had made it happen.

By Aidan Williams @yad_williams

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