After four years at Argentinian giants River Plate, Colombia's Radamel Falcao looked destined to become the star attraction of a Cafetero U-20 team that would go on to lift the South American Youth Championship back in January. Injury in the very first game, however, saw him lose his place in the starting line-up to Hugo Rodallega, who duly took his chance to become the tournament's star player and top scorer to boot.
With the action less than a month away in the Netherlands, Falcao spoke to FIFA.com about life in Buenos Aires, his bad luck at the South American event and the upcoming FIFA World Youth Championship. For Falcao, competing at the global showcase is "a dream I've had since I was a kid".
Falcao's footballing journey began many years ago in the warm climes of Bogota. From an early age he stood out from his team-mates, so it came as no surprise when, as a mere 14 year old, he was whisked off to Buenos Aires for a trial with the mighty River Plate.
"They put me through my paces as soon I got there and luckily asked me to stay. I had to return home to play in the South American U-17 Championship, but I flew straight back to River when the tournament was over," he explains, clearly still excited by the memory.
Not surprisingly, life for a young boy in a big city far away from his family was far from idyllic, but the days of living in hotels and boarding houses are now a distant memory. Radamel has been joined in Argentina by his mother and younger sisters and already made his First Division debut with River, where he shares a dressing room with the likes of Marcelo Salas and Marcelo Gallardo.
"The first time I warmed up with them I just couldn't believe it", says Radamel, now firm friends with fellow Colombian Jairo Patiño, who also has the job of ferrying the youngster around. "It was incredible at the start. I was so proud to be lining up with such great players. Then, when I got to know them a bit more, things just got better. They're really helping me improve my game."
These are exciting times for Falcao and he hopes to put his experience to good use at next month's FIFA World Youth Championship. "It's a dream I've had since I was a kid, and I just hope I play as well as I can. I want to help the team go all the way," says the young striker, putting the personal disappointment of the January tournament behind him. "I would have played a lot better if I'd been fully fit. Anyway, the World Championship is a great chance to put things right personally and, more importantly, play well for my country."
Eduardo Lara's team faces a big challenge as it sets out to do better than the third place achieved at UAE 2003. Falcao, a big admirer of Diego Maradona, is optimistic: "Colombian youth football has really come on over the last few years and a lot of hard work has gone into that. I hope it all comes together in Holland. Everyone back home is expecting big things of us, and we hope to be there or thereabouts at the end," he says.
No clear favouritesIn a tournament as important as this, there is no time for resting on laurels, and the young Cafeteros, drawn in Group E, will need to dig deep if they are to get past Italy, Syria and Canada. As Falcao sees it, the opening game against the Squadra Azzurra is a tough assignment: "You have to give them a lot of respect. Their record is second to none and they play really good football. For us, a game like this just gives us extra motivation. The opening game is always vital and we'll be going for it."
The Colombians then face Syria and Canada, two teams with less history but dangerous opponents nonetheless. An agile and mobile striker, Radamel is well aware that if the team switches off it could be made to pay: "You can't choose your opponents in big competitions like this. On paper the others don't look as strong as the Italians, but we still have to beat them. We've got to play all our games with the same intensity to make sure we don't slip up," he adds.
That is a feeling shared by Lara's entire squad, wherever it plays. "Our biggest strength is our team spirit. We always give it everything and look out for each other, and we're all striving together to reach the same goals. What's more, we're a pretty happy bunch that tries to play good football." South America has already seen what they are capable of. Now it is time for the rest of the world