An iconic look can go a long way in manifesting a player’s status as a cult hero. If you have the talent to go alongside your appearance, you are a legend in the making. Carlos Valderrama had both, and the golden boy with the golden hair made sure that even more than two decades after his heyday, he is still as fondly remembered as ever.
Who Is Carlos Valderrama
Carlos Alberto Valderrama is one of those people who leaves a lasting impression. He is, quite simply, the greatest icon in Colombian football and will surely remain so for many years to come. A brilliant on-field tactician, Valderrama was the architect of the most successful period in the Cafetera’s history.
Spend a few hours in the company of the man and you begin to understand the passion he arouses among the fans, whether in the humble streets of his native Santa Marta or on the boulevards of the capital Bogota. In the world of Colombian football, his iconoclastic status is perhaps the only thing that fanatical followers of the game all over the country actually agree on.
Though perhaps best known internationally for his trademark curly blond mop of hair, there is little question, however, that those who saw El Pibe (The Kid) in action also remember him for his inimitable style.
How many other footballers were capable of playing the game at a walking pace and still covering every blade of grass? How many other playmakers possessed his gift for delivering first-time balls? And who could forget the inch-perfect passes he played without even looking?
A two-time winner of the South American Player of the Year award, Valderrama graced three FIFA World Cups, Italia 90, USA 94, and France 98, played in the Spanish and French leagues with Valladolid and Montpellier respectively, and also turned out for a number of Major League Soccer (MLS) outfits in the USA.
The Early Years
Football came naturally to Carlos Valderrama, as he got into the game little by little. He started out with Pescadito, the team from his street, and climbed up through the ranks, first with the juniors and then with the youth teams. He used to play in tournaments against teams from other suburbs and then in school championships with the school team.
Carlos’s father was a professional soccer player for Unión Magdalena. His dad used to take me to the training ground all the time. On the days I didn’t go, the Argentinian coach called Rubén Deibe would ask him, ‘Cómo está el pibe?’ (How’s the kid?) From then on, everyone stopped referring to him as Carlos. The nickname stuck thanks to Rubén Deibe.
With his frizzy mop of hair, sparkling jewelry, and colorful personality, Carlos Alberto Valderrama Palacio is unquestionably one of the most recognizable soccer players to have graced football grounds around the world. Valderrama began his senior career at Unión Magdalena of the Colombian First Division in 1981. He was 20 years when he made his debut.
In 1984, Carlos Valderrama played for Millonarios. When he joined Deportivo Cali in 1985, the playmaker played most of his Colombian football there and caught the attention of the national team selectors.
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 debut in the 3-0 defeat to Paraguay aged 24.
Carlos Alberto Valderrama Palacio 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 honor 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, Carlos Valderrama was employed in the center of the soccer field 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 was 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.
Carlos Valderrama European Journey
The precise passing Valderrama joined Montpellier of the French First Division in 1988 from Deportivo Cali. A less technical, more physical, and tactical brand of football was played in Europe, and he struggled to adapt.
In 1990, however, he played a pivotal role as his side won the Coupe de France thanks to his passing abilities. In 1991, he joined the Spanish club Real Valladolid.
After returning to Colombia in 1992, he played for Independiente Medellín, and then Atlético Junior in 1993, with whom he won the Colombian championship twice. After success on home soil, Carlos Valderrama played seven seasons in Major League Soccer (MLS). During this time, he played for Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion, and finished his MLS career with the Colorado Rapids.
La Tricolor’s Conductor
Playing as a number ten, Carlos Alberto Valderrama fit the mold of the old-school playmaker, dropping deep to receive the ball and moving it on quickly. He was a metronome at the heart of Colombia’s midfield, a conductor with incredible vision. His ability to get out of tight spaces with little shimmies and play neat passing triangles with his teammates made him one of the most dynamic and skilled midfielders of his day.
A selfless midfielder, Valderrama preferred assisting his teammates over seeking goals himself. Thanks to his immense talent and pinpoint passing, the Colombian string-puller Carlos secured his status as a legend of the world game.
Becoming A National Hero
Success had eluded Colombia’s national team for much of their existence, but with Carlos Valderrama pulling strings, they qualified for Italia 1990. Their first World Cup appearance in 28 years. After beating the United Arab Emirates, a loss to Yugoslavia followed, leaving the Colombia national team desperate to get something out of their game with eventual winners West Germany.
Despite controlling the match for large stretches, the Colombians fell behind two minutes from the end of regular time. However, the goal seemingly flicked a switch rather than feeling sorry for themselves, with elimination staring them in the face.
The South Americans had looked likely to miss out once Pierre Littbarski had netted in the 89th minute, but Carlos Valderrama produced a moment of magic when he turned well, waltzed past several German midfield players with a few delicate touches, and delivered a pinpoint pass to team-mate Rincon who equalized through the legs of Bodo Illgner three minutes into injury time.
Against Cameroon in the second round, Valderrama’s class in the center of the pitch shone through again. In a goalless game forced into extra-time, he would see his side knocked out when Roger Milla dispossessed erratic goalkeeper Rene Higuita in one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history.
Higuita remains culpable for his actions, but Carlos Valderrama had been the one to alert Roger 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.
1994 World Cup
By the time the 1994 edition in America rolled around, the colorful midfielder was viewed as one of the best playmakers in the game, and Colombia was 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 the national team preparations and there were concerns that Carlos Valderrama would not be fit in time. Defeats to Romania and the USA heralded a disappointing early exit, although worse was to follow.
Upon their return to Colombia, Valderrama’s friend and teammate 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.
1998 World Cup
In France four years later, at the age of 37, Carlos 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.
The Colombian King
Valderrama was instrumental in Colombia’s success throughout the 1990s, such as in the almost mythical 5–0 thrashing of mighty Argentina in 1993, or when he helped Colombia qualify for two more World Cups that decade and became the nation’s most capped player in the process. (111 caps)
The eccentric, unselfish playmaker etched himself in the annals of history through his looks and sheer ability to take games by the scruff of the neck. Carlos Valderrama personified the comically absurd and yet iconic nature of the 1990s. He is the most outstanding player Colombia has produced.
A smooth, graceful and natural performer, his impact on Colombian football in the 1990s 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.
Carlos Valderrama Stats And Facts
Full Name: Carlos Alberto Valderrama Palacio
Birthplace: Santa Marta, Colombia
- Unión Magdalena 1980–1984
- Millonarios 1984–1985
- Deportivo Cali 1985–1988
- Montpellier 1988–1991
- Real Valladolid 1991–1992
- Independiente Medellín 1992–1993
- Atlético Junior 1993–1995
- Tampa Bay Mutiny (Major League Soccer) 1995–1997
- Miami Fusion (Major League Soccer) 1997–1999
- Tampa Bay Mutiny 1999–2001
- Colorado Rapids (Major League Soccer) 2001–2002
Total Appearances: 619 matches, 54 goals
- Colombia 1985–1998 (111 appearances, 11 goals)
- Three World Cup Tournaments (1990, 1994 , and 1998)
- 1990: Coupe de France (French Cup)
- 1993 and 1995: Colombian Championship
Tampa Bay Mutiny
- 1996: Major League Soccer Supporters’ Shield
- 1987: Copa América Most Valuable Player
- 1987 and 1993: South American Footballer of the Year
- 1987, 1993, and 1996: South American Team of the Year
- 1996: Major League Soccer (MLS) All-Star of the Year
- 1996: Major League Soccer MVP
- 1999: Colombian Player of the Century
Rhett is an Australian-born, globe trotter who is a UEFA ‘A’ Licence Soccer Coach. With his family, he has traveled and coached soccer in more than 30 countries, while attending World Cups, European Championships, and some of the biggest local derbies in the world!