It takes a very special player to make their mark in a sport like football. To do so without ever winning any major silverware makes such an achievement all the more remarkable, particularly when the man in question kept his feet firmly on the ground throughout an illustrious playing career.
Although Carlos Valderrama is known by many for his distinctive mop of blond hair, a trademark he still retains today, for genuine football lovers the mere mention of the man they call El Pibe (The Kid) brings magical memories of a gifted midfield schemer. Here was a footballer who played the game at walking pace but still seemed to cover every blade of grass, a lethal playmaker who championed the art of the creative midfielder, widely considered to be a dying breed.
Today, at the age of 45, Valderrama continues to enjoy a close relationship with the sport he graced with such artistry. He now runs an academy in the Colombian city of Barranquilla, which, as he tells FIFAworldcup.com is a source of immense satisfaction to him. Until very recently he was also one of the faces of Major League Soccer in the United States, giving MLS clinics at training camps all over the country.
Aside from his business interests, Valderrama is also patiently waiting for the opportunity to fulfil his dream of taking charge of the Colombia national team. He is not unduly concerned about his lack of coaching experience. "Although I've never managed a team, I am a coach. If you really want to achieve major things as a coach, it's only natural you should want to manage your country. I don't want to upset anyone, but if they offered me the job I'd take it," says Valderrama.
"This is the perfect time because we've just missed out on Germany 2006 and we've got a good squad made up of players who were at the World Youth Championship in Holland. A lot of them are playing abroad picking up valuable experience for the next World Cup qualifying campaign. The current coach or whoever follows him is going to have a major advantage in that respect."
The right stuff
There is no doubt that *El Pibe * has all the necessary qualities and is a firm candidate for the post. His country's greatest footballing idol, a status he looks set to hold for many years to come, Valderrama's retirement from the game left a void that has yet to be filled. Colombia have been engaged in a desperate search for a successor to his crown ever since that FIFA World Cup defeat by England on 26 June 1998, a painful reverse that marked the end of both his international career and a golden era in Colombian football.
"That's right. We had a generation of great players who are still recognised around the world today and that makes me feel very proud. Unfortunately, we didn't quite manage to get the results everyone said we would. All the same, we really enjoyed ourselves on the pitch," recalls the two-times winner of the South American Player of the Year award with a big smile. The closest Colombia ever got to glory was the round of 16 at Italia 90 when they lost 2-1 after extra time to Cameroon.
"Even though we lost that game, Italia 90 was one of the happiest moments of my career. It was my first World Cup, we'd qualified for the first time in many years and we gave as good as we got against the eventual winners Germany (in a 1-1 draw in Milan). It was a fantastic experience," adds Valderrama.
Bags of experience
It was an entirely different story four years later, though. Colombia were among the favourites when they arrived at USA 94 following a superb qualification campaign that included two victories over Argentina no less. The first of them came in Barranquilla, a victory that ended the Albiceleste's 33-game unbeaten run, and was followed by an historic 5-0 win in Buenos Aires that forced the two-times world champions into the play-offs. The joy soon turned to tears, however, as Colombia made a sad first-round exit.
"It was the best Colombia team of all time. We had the lot a good goalkeeper, strong defence, excellent midfield and quality forwards. It was our chance to show what we were made of. Our opponents played better than us, though, and that's football," says a wistful Valderrama.
The midfield maestro guided Colombia to qualification for France 98 , only for the Cafeteros to fall at the first hurdle yet again. And it has been downhill for Colombia ever since, a reversal of fortunes he sets out to explain: "Perhaps the transitional phase had something to do with us not qualifying for Korea/Japan, but it was very disappointing to miss out on Germany. We have never had so many Colombian players abroad before, and I think that's where the problem lies. They don't have enough time together. But we've got to move on now, look to the future, and put together a good squad that can take us back to the World Cup."
Turning his thoughts to Germany 2006, Valderrama sees Brazil, Argentina, Portugal and England as the favourites. "I watch as many games as I can. At an individual level I'm going to keep an eye on Ronaldinho, the best player in the world in my opinion, Zinedine Zidane, who's still playing really well, and Juan Riquelme, the most similar player to me at the moment."
"Good things are worth waiting for," adds Valderrama by way of conclusion, a saying that has become something of a motto for him. "People ask me what I mean by that, and I always say that although I would have liked to have won the World Cup, I can't be too hard on myself. You should only worry when you don't get the chance to reach certain goals. The fact is, though, my team-mates and I had the chance not once, but three times. Now I'm waiting for another opportunity, but this time as the coach of Colombia."
Full name: Carlos Alberto Valderrama Palacio
Date and place of birth: 2 September 1961, Santa Marta, Colombia
Union Magdalena (1981-1984), Millonarios (1985), Deportivo Cali (1986-1988), Montpellier (France, 1988-1990), Valladolid (Spain, 1990-1991), Deportivo Independiente Medellin (1992), Junior Barranquilla (1993), Tampa Bay Mutiny (USA, 1996-1997), Miami Fusion (USA, 1998-1999), Tampa Bay Mutiny (USA, 2000-2001), Colorado Rapids (USA, 2001-2002)
International appearances: 111 (10 at FIFA World Cup finals)
International goals: 11 (1 at Italia 90)
FIFA World Cup record:
Italia 90 Round of 16 (4 appearances)
USA 94 First round (3 appearances)
France 98 First round (3 appearances)
- South American Footballer of the Year (1987 and 1993)
- French Cup winner (1990)
- Colombian Championship winner with Junior Barranquilla (1993, 1995)
- MLS Player of the Year (1996)
- Member of the FIFA Century Club