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World Cup Legend

Carlos Valderrama: Colombian king

May 5, 2010

With his frizzy mop of hair, sparkling jewellery and colourful personality, Carlos Alberto Valderrama Palacio is unquestionably one of the most recognisable footballers to have graced the World Cup.

Carlos Valderrama
GettyImagesCarlos Valderrama and his trademark hair.

The Colombian No.10 was instantly taken into the hearts of millions of football fans for his huge blonde perm, but Valderrama also had the skills to ensure that his contribution to the sport would not be overshadowed by his hairstyle as he went on to become one of the few stars of the game who captained their country to three World Cups.

Despite never realistically managing to mount an assault on the biggest prize in the game, his 111 caps for his country coupled with the grace and poise he demonstrated on the ball mark him out as a one of the best South Americans to have played the game.

Given his debut for Colombia in October 1985, he was certainly not a Wunderkind even though he carried the nickname "El Pibe" [The Kid], but instead made his bow in the 3-0 defeat to Paraguay aged 24. That said, Valderrama did not need a lot of time to make his mark on the national team setup and was not made to wait long before he was given the honour of wearing the captain's armband at the Copa America tournament in 1987 when he led his side to third place.

A gifted passer of the ball with an artistic nature that lends itself to the position, he was employed in the centre of the pitch as the team's playmaker for the 1990 World Cup in Italy and impressed on his first step on the world stage. A team that consisted of the likes of Rene Higuita and Freddy Rincon were given little chance as the country had not qualified for a World Cup since 1962 - when they had gone out in the first round - although the addition of the United Arab Emirates in a group that also contained West Germany and Yugoslavia gave them a chance of making it through.

Indeed, with Valderrama in commanding form as captain, Colombia claimed a place in the knockout stages as they finished third in their group. Beginning with a 2-0 win over the UAE, with goals from Redin and a 20-yard drive from Valderrama himself, Colombia lost to Yugoslavia but then claimed a creditable (and surprising) 1-1 draw against the eventual winners West Germany to seal their place in the next stage.

The South Americans had looked likely to miss out once Pierre Littbarski had netted in the 89th minute, but Valderrama produced a moment of magic when he turned well, waltzed past several players with a few delicate touches and delivered a pinpoint pass to team-mate Rincon who equalised through the legs of Bodo Illgner three minutes into injury time.

It was emblematic of his style: languid occasionally, but incisive when it mattered.

Against Cameroon in the second round, Valderrama's class in the centre of the pitch shone through again but, in a goalless game forced into extra-time, his input (albeit a year earlier) would see his side knocked out when Roger Milla dispossessed erractic goalkeeper Rene Higuita in one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history.

Of course Higuita remains culpable for his actions, but Valderrama had been the one to alert Milla [a former Montpellier team-mate of his] to the goalkeeper's eccentricities by giving him a videotape to study a year before the World Cup.

Colombia paid the price for Higuita's tomfoolery but Valderrama's reputation was buoyed by his performances in Italy. By the time the 1994 edition in America rolled around, the colourful midfielder was viewed as one of the best playmakers in the game and Colombia were surprisingly tipped by many to go far in the competition.

An injury suffered in one of the warm-up games before the tournament began de-railed his preparations and there were concerns that Valderrama would not be fit in time. He was, but defeats to Romania and the USA heralded a disappointing early exit, although worse was to follow.

Carlos Valderrama
GettyImagesValderrama impressed against West Germany in 1990.

Upon their return to Colombia, Valderrama's friend and team-mate Andres Escobar was murdered for the own goal he scored against the USA - the goal that sealed their exit from the tournament. It raised questions over the future of the squad and was a huge blow for a national side who were beginning to forge real ambitions on the world stage, while for Valderrama, the tragedy was marked as the lowest point of his career.

"It's very difficult for me to talk about him,'' he told the St. Petersburg Times in 2001. ''It's very painful. He was very close to me. We were very good friends, very good friends. That has been my worst experience playing the sport."

In France four years later, at the age of 37, Valderrama once again led his country to a World Cup. However, the mental scars of 1994 were still fresh for Colombia, while age had caught up with the midfielder and he was unable to have the same kind of impact as he had done in the past. A dismal campaign saw them exit early, and despite beating Tunisia it ended with a 2-0 defeat to England - Valderrama's last appearance in the famous shirt.

Valderrama will forever be remembered for his wild, untamable hairstyle, however his footballing style was almost the antithesis. A smooth, graceful and natural performer, his impact on Colombian football in the 90s saw him voted "Player of the Century" in his homeland with more than 70% of the votes and his sublime natural ability and awareness mark him out as one of the greats of the game.