Thanks to his immense talent and pinpoint passing, former Colombia string-puller Carlos Valderrama has forever secured his status as a legend of the world game. With El Pibe casting spells in midfield with his wand-like right foot, Los Cafeteros made their last three appearances at the FIFA World Cup™, in 1990, ’94 and ’98, in the process going toe-to-toe with Planet Football’s finest sides.
Widely considered Colombia’s finest player of all time, Valderrama certainly cut an iconic figure thanks to his trademark mop of blonde hair, moustache, No10 shirt and captain’s armband. A veteran of over 110 senior international games, El Pibe discussed a whole range of issues with FIFA.com, including his fondness for fellow playmakers, the current Colombia squad and his top tips for the forthcoming Copa America.
FIFA.com: Señor Valderrama, you’ve been quoted as highlighting the lack of creativity in the Colombia side preparing for the Copa America. Is that really how you feel?
Carlos Valderrama: That’s right, this team is short on playmaking ability. If you want to score goals you have to be able to create, and we’re lacking those kind of players. We’ve got good, strong players who can win the ball back and shoot from distance – they battle for the whole 90 minutes but they don’t create much. That’s when things get tricky. Fortunately we’ve got some very good forwards.
Are there no playmakers left in modern football?
I think they’re still around, but they’re not given a chance. Tactics have changed to 4-4-2 now and it’s all about running around and launching into tackles. Even when you’ve got someone who’s a good footballer, can slow things down, scores goals and can prove decisive, if he doesn’t scrap for every ball and slide into tackles then he gets dropped. That’s the difference. There are always playmakers around, but few coaches are willing to give them a go.
Are there any Colombian creators you’re particularly impressed by?
I like Macnelly Torres, but he’s not been given a chance in this coaching cycle. Once he returns from injury, Giovanni Moreno is another player who can help out in that position during the (Brazil 2014) qualifiers. I’m a fan of those two players because they know what they’re doing and they can slow a game down: they might not run through brick walls like coaches seem to want, but they can make all the difference.
And further afield?
I've always been a huge admirer of [Juan Roman] Riquelme, ever since he started out. In my eyes there’s no debate concerning how good he is. [Juan Sebastian] Veron plays in a different position but he’s another one who knows exactly what to do with the ball. I’ll always give players of this quality ten out of ten, even though they don’t put their bodies on the line. They’ve got class, I can identify with them.
Let us turn the conversation to Colombian strikers. Could you rank Los Cafeteros’ leading front-men according to your personal preference?
That’s a hard one! Where would you put Radamel [Falcao], for example, who soon after arriving in Europe scored 60 goals in a year? I can’t do a ranking of these players. Teofilo Gutierrez is in Argentina, Hugo Rodallega is in England – they all play for different teams in different leagues and they’re all doing very well. The most important thing is that they reproduce this form at national-team level.
On the subject of Gutierrez, were you surprised by how well he’s done in his first season in Argentina?
Not at all. We know Teo very well over here and we know he’s a quality player. He’s a different kind of striker: he knows how to use the ball, he helps create play and he scores goals too! If he gets three one-on-ones with the keeper he’ll score all three. He’s very effective and he’s doing very well, thank God.
Returning to the Copa America, and who’s your top tip for the title?
Argentina! They’re the host nation, they play nice football and they’ve got some great players. I think they’ll be able to take advantage of playing at home in front of their own fans, which always has an impact.
You played in five editions of the Copa America, the first of which was also played in Argentina. Were any of them more memorable than the others?
No, no, I have similar memories of all of them. When you hang up your boots you appreciate things more, but when you’re still playing you travel, you play and everything passes by really fast. But now I watch them on TV and really enjoy them properly. I’ll always remember those great moments we had with the national squad.
Do you ever feel the urge to turn back time and get your kit on once more?
Not any more. I’m realistic: I had my time, I enjoyed it and I’m still enjoying it. I’ll always appreciate what I did during my playing days, but the rest in history.
Speaking of great moments with the national team, some have stated that Los Cafeteros’ 5-0 thrashing of Argentina in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in 1993 hurt Colombian football more than any other match. Do you agree?
Not at all! (laughs) Let’s be clear here: that was the best result in Colombian football history. Argentina had never lost 5-0 at home before and it also enabled us to finish top of our group.
So, why would people try to put a negative spin on that result?
Those people know nothing about football, they’re just trying to look for excuses when things go wrong. Beating Argentina 5-0 in the (Estadio) Monumental (in Buenos Aires), that’ll never happen again! Those who know football, who know a good thing when they see it, say that we won by playing well. It had nothing to do with luck or anything of the sort.
That game is one of so many positive memories from your career, yet only one year later your team-mate Andres Escobar was murdered after returning from USA 1994. What do you remember of that tragic incident?
It’s a very sad memory, which left its mark on all of us: his friends, colleagues and his family. It’s the worst thing that I experienced in football. There’s no two ways of looking at Andres’ death or anything you can compare it to. You can win, lose or draw in football but there’s no explanation for something like that. Andres is no longer with us, which is something we all wish wasn’t the case.
One last question, will we ever see you turn your hand to coaching?
No, no – I’ve already started down a different path. There are so many things in a coach’s life that I don’t like: staying in hotels the night before games; the fact that a third party’s mistakes might undo the work you've done. Add into the mix that I’m a very forward person, I can’t help speaking my mind... I think that during my sporting career I already did what I enjoy most in life: playing football.