With his afro-blonde hairstyle, flashy jewellery and drooping moustache, Carlos Valderrama certainly did not go unnoticed when he arrived in Montpellier in 1988. The Colombian midfield magician had been on the shopping list at the modest French club for some time. It was here that he would begin his European career, and despite a tough start in his first season, “El Pibe” is remembered in the south of France with unabated affection. Here we take a look back at his two years on the Mediterranean coast.
The 27-year-old Colombian playmaker set sail for the old world in 1988. “We had heard there was a great midfielder playing in Colombia so we went down to take a look for ourselves,” explains Louis Nicollin, president of Montpellier Hérault Sporting Club.
At the time, Montpellier were considered to have made a “steal”. Valderrama played a blinder against England at Wembley and became the toast of the footballing world. Nicollin tells the story: “We went to see him play for Colombia at Wembley in May 1988. We agreed terms with his club and Valderrama signed on right away. He played like a dream in London and the following day all the English papers ran stories entitled ‘Lucky Montpellier’.”
Hard time settling in
Valderrama did not take to French football straight away. He was unfit when he arrived, “burnt out” Nicollin says, “so our coach left him on the bench and stuck with more familiar faces. And as Carlos isn’t a born leader he didn’t get too upset about it.”
Laurent Blanc, who played alongside Carlos in his first season at Montpellier, remembers the difficulties this fabulously talented performer encountered while adapting to European football: “The game in Europe is very different to the game in South America. Down there it’s all about passing. Here it’s more physical and there’s less space. It wasn’t easy for Carlos.”
In fact Valderrama practically sat out the first season on the bench and bided his time. “He’s a sweet guy, never a word out of place - disciplined too. At Montpellier his life revolved around the stadium and his home life. He’s just an all round great guy,” said Nicollin.
His chance came with the arrival of Polish coach Henryk Kasperczack in 1989. And his talent impressed even the most cynical observers. “I really liked how he played. One touch, South American ‘toque’ style, very efficient. Carlos always made the right pass at the right time. It was a pleasure to play in the same team as him,” says French international Stéphane Paille, who played alongside him for Montpellier.
With Valderrama in the side Montpellier went from strength to strength. “In 1990, when we won the French Cup, he was the main man: he saved our skins in the semi-final against Saint-Étienne,” says President Nicollin. Laurent Blanc, who also played in that team, feels the same way. “It was in that semi-final that he really made people sit up and pay attention. He was absolutely fabulous.” In European games against PSV Eindhoven and Steaua Bucharest, he also showed he had talent to spare.
“We should never have let him leave”Yet when “El Pibe” left Montpellier, he was not snapped up by a big club. He joined another modest outfit in Valladolid, this time in the Spanish league. Then after two seasons in La Liga he returned home to Colombia. He partly chose Valladolid because three compatriots were all on the payroll there: coach Francisco Maturana, goalkeeper René Higuita and attacker Leonel Alvarez. “We should never have let him leave. He was thirty and I suppose we thought his best football was behind him,” says Nicollin.
So did the nonchalant Valderrama have the right stuff for the modern European game? “Carlos had his qualities and his faults: above all he was good on the ball. But he wasn’t great at chasing back to defend the way you are expected to in the European game. He wasn’t defensive enough!” is how Stéphane Paille sums up his ex-team-mate. President Nicollin adds: “He kept the ball a lot because he could! Either you’re a class act or you’re not. Carlos was all class…It’s true he didn’t chase back to defend a great deal but his passing skills were sublime. That’s why we had him in there.”
The final word goes to Laurent Blanc: “In the fast and furious European game he wasn’t always at his ease. He was a natural exponent of ‘toque’, keeping the ball moving. But he was so gifted that we could give him the ball when we didn’t know what else to do with it knowing he wouldn’t lose it… and often he would do things that most of us only dream about!”