Still preserving the curly golden mop that was his trademark during his playing days, there can be little doubt Carlos Valderrama remains the best-known face in Colombian football. Perfectly placed to analyse the current state of the game in Cafetero country, the 51-year-old former playmaker was in Zurich on 7 January to hand over the FIFA Puskás Award during the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala.
There he spoke expansively and effusively to FIFA.com, giving his views on, amongst other things, the changing role of traditional No10s, the revival in fortunes of Colombia’s senior side, Jose Pekerman’s performance at the helm and the inexorable rise of Radamel Falcao.
FIFA.com: Carlos, the years go by but your legend remains as vibrant as ever. How much did it mean to be invited to take part at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala?
Carlos Valderrama: It’s something unforgettable. I was surprised to get the invitation, and that’s the truth, but it was a very good and pleasant surprise. I’m happy, pleased and proud to be here, because in a way I’m representing my country at an event I’ve always watched on TV. It was a real thrill to be invited.
Is there anybody you were determined to meet here in Zurich?
Loads of people! But particularly current players, guys I never had the chance to play against or bump into at other events. They’re part of another generation. That’s why I’ve brought my camera with me, ready to get some souvenir photos. I wanted to get a photo with [Lionel] Messi, as I’d seen him on two previous occasions but there’d been too many people around then. I also wanted pics with Andres Iniesta and Cristiano Ronaldo, players who I always enjoy watching on television.
Of that trio, the three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, would you say you were most similar to Iniesta?
Yes, definitely. He’s the most similar to me in terms of his style and the way he plays one- or two-touch football. He’s an organiser, a string-puller and, like me, he doesn’t score that many goals, he’s a player who lays them on for others. I used to enjoy setting up a goal more than scoring one. I’d love chasing after a team-mate to celebrate a goal he’d scored from one of my passes.
Why do you think there aren’t many players in your mould anymore?
The way the game is played is different. Traditional No10s, like I used to be, are stuck out on the flanks nowadays so they can drift inside and back again. And they can disappear a little out there, because physically they have to put in a phenomenal amount of work, but without as much time to think. In any case, it’s very unlikely they will become totally extinct, because every team needs players with that [creative] ability.
Some time ago you told us Colombia were lacking a player who could link midfield and attack. Do you think the emergence of James Rodriguez has solved that problem?
James has done a really good job. I’m one of the people in Colombia who really admire him, who always defend him. That’s due to his style of play and everything he’s already achieved in his short career: this is a lad who went to Argentina and won a championship with Banfield, and who’s now a first-choice at Porto. He has made a difference and he’s not been weighed down by the senior national-team jersey. We can rest easy because he’s only just getting started: we [Colombia] have got a quality player for a long time to come.
How would you say Jose Pekerman has done since taking the Colombia helm?
It’s been positive. He’s a football man, who can play the game and who, in his own way, has given Colombian football its identity back. The players have adapted to him and are getting the results that Colombia and the world like to see. And they’ve not just won games; they’ve done it by playing good football. In the likes of [Edwin] Valencia, Macnelly Torres, [Carlos] Valdez and Teo Gutierrez, he’s put in four or five players who weren’t getting in the national side before. He’s assembled a strong team, the foundations are laid. Let’s hope we can keep going like this and make every Colombians’ dream come true, by reaching the World Cup again.
Do you think the euphoria that has built up around the team is justified or over the top?
It’s exciting! And it’s to be expected after so long away [from the World Cup]. It’s what we’re all hoping for, because we’ve always had generations of very good players who’ve somehow got lost along the way. But I think this generation will manage to get us back to the World Cup, and by playing good football to boot.
Can you compare this crop of players with Cafetero stars of the 1990s?
It’s different, because this whole group of players play outside Colombia. I only left just after the ’90 World Cup [Editor's note: Valderrama actually joined Montpellier in 1988] and Lionel [Alvarez], [Rene] Higuita and the rest went later. These [current] players have been abroad a long time and that gives them a bit more international experience, [the taste of] a different culture and way of life. I think this generation has the edge on ours because of that. I hope they can prove it by taking the national squad to World Cups, like we did.
That sparkling Colombia side which thumped Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires in qualifying for USA 1994 has been accused of resting on its laurels after that win. Do you think something like that could happen to this Colombia squad?
We didn’t rest on our laurels, quite the opposite in fact. We enjoyed that game and beat them 5-0 in the [Estadio] Monumental, a feat that’s never been done since. You have to enjoy a result like that, but we didn’t stop working hard afterwards! What happened is we didn’t play as well as we should at the World Cup and the other teams played better. In Colombia they’ve never been able to accept that. And I, as a player, have always said that’s football: you have peaks and troughs. And that’s what happened. These players know that they haven’t achieved their objective yet, but they are playing well and the country’s very happy with them. But to make history you have to take advantage of moments like this, and it’s an important time for them. They’re a young team daring to dream, and who are going to achieve their goal and keep performing better – for their own sakes and for their country.
What emotions does Radamel Falcao’s current success stir in you?
He’s writing a beautiful story. I personally, and Colombians as a whole, are very proud of what he’s achieving. He’s managed to carve out a successful career in a short space of time. He’s a lad who’s still young! He was a leading scorer and champion at River [Plate] and he did the same at Porto. And now at Atletico [de Madrid], a team who were struggling when he arrived, he proved how good he is. [It’s as if] he said: ‘Here I am and I’m a goalscorer’. He battles hard, scores goals and he’s the team’s figurehead. Before, personally, I couldn’t wait for the weekend to watch Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Now I look forward to seeing Falcao too. He’ll keep on scoring goals, he’s flying the flag for Colombian football at the moment and we’re going to have the pleasure of watching him at the next World Cup in Brazil.
That said, you remain the most emblematic figure in Colombian football history. Do you think Falcao might one day overtake you?
Yes, yes, he’s proving that with the goals he’s scoring. And on top of that, I love the way he is: despite being a young man, his down-to-earth nature and humility shine through in everything he achieves. He’s gracious with people, he signs autographs and he’s involved with social events. I love how he is as both a player and a person. He’s on the right track.
Finally, do you have a message to all those who still revere you so many years after you hung up your boots?
I’d just like to thank them, from the heart. That’s because even though I retired eight or nine years ago they still follow my career. They take an interest in what I’m doing, ask me questions and show they care about me, everywhere I go. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed in my life has been representing my country, so I’m really thankful to people for not forgetting about El Pibe Valderrama. Let’s hope that’s the case for a long time to come.