Carlos Valderrama: The Colombian whose hair and football were larger than life

Pass notes

A caricaturist's dream of a football player: a mushroom cloud of blonde frizz with two football boots poking out the bottom. Basically Cousin Itt from the Addams Family if he had no access to hair straighteners and had spent his youth learning to knit together attacking moves instead of... well, doing whatever it was that Cousin Itt actually did.

On the field of play, Valderrama was as smooth as silk. There were moments of trickery, sure, but his strength lay in his decision-making – that uncanny ability to map everything out in a split second and plot the best path to goal. From that point on, it was always a case of letting the ball do the work; one or two touches usually sufficed.


 Career in five steps

1. The son of a professional footballer, Valderrama learnt his craft playing with friends in Santa Marta and representing the excellently-named Jhon F Kennedy school. His first steps in the professional game came at Unión Magdalena, under Eduardo Julián Retat, who ignored the pleas of his colleagues to sign the straggly teenager. "The club didn't want him," he revealed last year. "But that rebellious kid moved me.” 

2. In 1984, Valderrama jumped ship to Millonarios, but it would be at Deportivo Cali that he would begin to make his mark. Dovetailing with fellow creative soul Bernardo Redín, he became a firm fan favourite and helped El Verdiblanco to two runners-up finishes in the Colombian top flight. In 1987, he was named South American Footballer of the Year – a title he would claim again six years later.

3. By that stage, Valderrama was a mainstay of the Colombian national team. The playmaker shone at the 1987 Copa América but it was a friendly against England at Wembley that brought him wider acclaim – and a move to Europe. Montpellier president Louis Nicollin liked what he saw ("He played like a dream in London," he later admitted) and lured him to the south of France, where Valderrama would win the Coupe de France before joining Real Valladolid.

4. This was a golden era for Colombian football and Valderrama was one of the main protagonists, captaining Los Cafeteros at three consecutive World Cups. He experienced the joy of Italia 90 (about which more below) and the disappointment of USA 94, before rolling back the years at France 98. The defining game of the period, though, was probably the 5-0 thrashing of Argentina in Buenos Aires in 1993. Valderrama might not have got on the scoresheet but is was his metronomic passing from deep that paved the way for the win.

5. The twilight years of Valderrama's playing career were spent in MLS, with Tampa Bay Mutiny (twice), Miami Fusion and Colorado Rapids. It's fair to say he made a lasting impression, managing 26 assists in a single season in 1996 and getting earning a spot in the MLS All-Time Best XI nine years later. Just don't think about the standard of defending too much, OK? 


The best of times

Before their stirring 2014 campaign in Brazil, Colombia had only once progressed past the group stage of a World Cup, back in 1990. Valderrama was at the top of his game in that tournament, pulling the strings as Francisco Maturana's charges snuck through to the knockout stages.

The 28-year-old rifled home a fine goal as Colombia saw off the UAE in their Group D opener, but defeat to Yugoslavia meant that they needed a result in their final pool game to progress. In their way stood West Germany, who looked to have landed a sucker punch when Pierre Littbarski struck with a couple of minutes to go. But Valderrama had other ideas, leading savage counter-attack to tee up Freddy Rincón for an equaliser. 

It was a goal that distilled the essence of Maturana's side: pace, wide-eyed attacking vim and, at the heart of it all, Valderrama's visionary sangfroid. While the campaign would end in disappointment against a Roger-Milla-inspired Cameroon, Valderrama and his colleagues had created memories to last half a lifetime. "It was an unforgettable moment for our generation and for our country," he later said.


The worst of times

In 2007, Valderrama tried his hand at coaching, joining Junior Barranquilla in a hybrid assistant manager/sporting director role. It didn't go brilliantly, as evidenced by the fact that this chapter in his career is best remembered for an unsavoury outburst at a referee.

So incensed was he when official Óscar Ruiz awarded a penalty against his side, Valderrama stormed onto the field and waved a 50,000-peso note (the biggest denomination available in Colombia) at him. He was hit with a ten-game ban and fined considerably more than the amount he was using to make his point. 

"I apologise to all of Colombia on behalf of Carlos," sighed Junior boss Luis Grau. "What he did was a product of despair."


Nickname rating

No points for originality here: Valderrama goes by the common nickname El Pibe (The Kid), presumably because his father was also called Carlos Valderrama. Which is a shame, because there's another, more unique monicker lurking in his back story. 

In his biography of the playmaker, Colombian writer Fabio Poveda Márquez revealed that a number of Valderrama's closest confidants call him El Sorbo (The Sip) – a nickname that dates back to his teenage years. The story has it that Valderrama turned down the offer of a beer, prompting a friend to mockingly insist that he should be polite and take a sip at the very least. But Valderrama, just 16 at the time, held his ground, refusing to let a drop pass his lips.

Against that, El Pibe is a bit meh. 4/10


Extra-curricular activities

We probably shouldn't be surprised that Valderrama has leveraged his superstar status in Colombia to bring in the advertising big bucks. Here are a couple of his better acting efforts:



Key quotes 

On his priorities when he stepped on the field: "It's not about winning. It's about having the ball."

On people calling him slow: "Speed is only important in horse races."

On playing with bravery: "Throughout my career, I always took responsibility. I accepted [the possibility] of losing the ball rather than saving myself with a useless pass that landed a team-mate in trouble."


Last seen

Carrying the Olympic flame on behalf of Colombia in Berkshire before London 2012, gracing the Balon d'Or ceremony with his presence and dabbling in politics. Oh, and being a media darling; your columnist saw him hiding in plain sight in a press room at the 2014 World Cup:


Did you know?

In 2013, a 60-episode soap opera based on the lives of Valderrama and three other Colombia players took Colombia by storm. The midfielder was played by Edgar Vittorino, who was initially sceptical about his suitability for the role but agreed to don a blonde wig after seeing photos of Valderrama as a youngster and noticing a likeness.

The show, titled La Seleccion, became the most watched programme in the country, with Valderrama among its fans. "El Pibe is really happy. He reckons I am doing a good job imitating how he talks and acts," said Vittorino. "The people I meet on the streets hug me and tell me I've done a good job. They tell me they feel like they're watching El Pibe."