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Carlos Valderrama: A Colombian icon - and not just for the hair

12:00 PM GMT+4 01/12/2022
Carlos Valderrama Colombia Cult Hero HIC 16:9
The playmaker may have been renowned for his blonde mane but he was, first and foremost, a magnificent midfielder with a fantastic passing range.

Carlos Valderrama has always been easy to spot. That mop of blonde curly hair makes him one of the most recognisable figures in football.

There was a time, though, before streaming, social media and widespread TV coverage, when it was difficult for football fanatics to watch the game's greatest players in action.

Consequently, some top talent remained hidden for longer than it should have. Just like Valderrama.

The Colombian had been the best player at the 1997 Copa America and yet was relatively unknown in Europe.

That all changed when he graced Wembley the following year.

Valderrama obviously stood out immediately because of his magnificent hair, but what really caught the eye was his wondrous range of passing.

The English press were instantly smitten, and were full of praise for the quick thinking of Montpellier president Louis Nicollin, who had shrewdly signed Valderrama before any of Europe's biggest clubs.

"We had heard there was a great midfielder playing in Colombia so we went down to take a look for ourselves," Nicollin told FIFA's official website.

"Then, 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'."

Valderrama initially struggled to adapt to the more physical Ligue 1, and it didn't help that he wasn't the most industrious of midfielders.

However, by the time the 1990 World Cup rolled around, he was playing the best football of his spell in Europe, having just inspired Montpellier to a Coupe de France triumph.

"In the fast and furious European game he wasn’t always at his ease," former team-mate Laurent Blanc explained. "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!"

Valderrama underlined that fact at Italia '90, the tournament which made him a global icon.

He was never the most prolific of goalscorers but he helped Colombia kick off their campaign with a sweet strike in a 2-0 win over UAE in Bologna.

Defeat against Yugoslavia put the team in an awkward position, needing at least a point against eventual winners West Germany in their final group fixture to progress.

They looked doomed, then, when Pierre Littbarski broke the deadlock with just over two minutes of normal time remaining at San Siro.

However, Valderrama intervened, and in sensational fashion, skipping past a couple of players before teeing up Freddy Rincon for a last-gasp equaliser that sent Colombia through to the last 16.

Unfortunately, they would prove authors of their own downfall against Cameroon, with Rene Higuita making one of the most infamous errors in World Cup history, gifting Roger Milla the crucial opening goal in a 2-1 defeat in Naples after embarking upon an ill-advised dribble outside of his area in extra time.

Back home, though, the fans were immensely proud of the national team's performances in what was only their second appearance at the finals – and after a 28-year gap too.

The reaction to the team's elimination from USA 94, though, was as shocking as it was tragic, with Andres Escobar shot dead shortly after returning home.

The defender had scored the own goal which had effectively knocked Colombia out of a tournament many had tipped them to win, and was the reported motive for his murder.

Valderrama, just like the rest of his team-mates, was devastated by Escobar's death.

"It's still very difficult for me to talk about him," he told the St. Petersburg Times seven years later. "It's very painful.

"He was very close to me. We were very good friends, very good friends. That was my worst experience playing the sport."

Valderrama would go on to appear in a third World Cup, in 1998, but he was 37 at that stage and proved unable to prevent a weaker Colombia side from suffering another first-round exit.

"Naturally, I would have liked to have been world champion, but I don't regret the fact I wasn't," Valderrama later told FIFA.

"You should only worry when you never get the chance to reach certain goals, and the fact is my team-mates and I had that chance, not just once but three times.

"The World Cup is so tough that the best team we ever had, the one that went to USA 94, didn't even get past the group phase. We just didn't have it in us to win it.

"Sport has been very good to me, though. I'll always remember those great moments we had with the national squad."

Football fans will always remember Valderrama, too, of course. And not just for the hair either.