In June 1994, a Colombian player was seen running down the pitch with his golden curly locks shaped like a perfect soft helmet around his head as his country opened their World Cup account against Romania.
That player instantly won the hearts of fans all over the world thanks to the way he looked and his style of play.
Carlos Valderrama was 32 years old at the time and fame outside of South America finally struck for him the second he was seen on TV screens across America and the world.
Nicknamed “El Pibe” which means “The Kid” by his countrymen, Valderrama would go on to become the most capped player to ever wear the Colombian jersey in soccer.
His career started in 1981 with Unión Magdalena in Colombia. After spending three seasons with the club, the midfielder transferred to Millonarios then cut his teeth with Deportivo Cali in 1985.
The creative playmaker went from being a local hero to a national icon as he transferred clubs and picked up new fans along the way. By 1987, he was named the South American Footballer of the Year, a trophy he would win two more times later in his career.
Then in 1988, France’s Ligue 1 called and he signed with Montpellier. While his three seasons with the French side were less than impressive as he struggled to adapt to a different playing style, in 1991 he went back home and perfected the Colombian rhythmic play that made him an icon.
As he hopped around clubs like Real Valladolid, Medellin, and Junior, the man known as “The Kid” was coming into his own.
His playing style was as unique as an order of Lechona Tolimense in a Colombian restaurant.
Valderrama’s passing was as perfect as a SEAL Team Six Sniper’s bullet. His speed was like an Olympic sprinter who could stop on a dime and make defenders ankles break in the process. He could weave in and out of almost any dire situation that arose on the pitch and create the most unique plays possible, he would leave his audience dumbfounded asking “Did he just do that?!” and “How did he do that?!”
Valderrama wasn’t just a midfielder; he was a magician in an athlete’s body.
The Boy Becomes a Man
As the world looked on, Valderrama arrived in America in 1994 with the hopes of winning the World Cup with Colombia. It was his country’s greatest side ever at that point and it was theirs to lose.
Colombia would crash in the group stage of the tournament but Valderrama left his mark. Like Schillaci in 1990, Ozil in 2010, Ochoa in 2014, World Cup ‘94’s breakout star had a hairstyle as distinctive as his playing.
After a disappointing World Cup, he returned home to Colombia and following the murder of teammate Andres Escobar, Valderrama questioned if he would ever wear the national team shirt again. His friend and teammate was killed because he scored a silly own goal that led to Colombia’s booting from the Cup.
As he took some personal time away from the Colombian national team, he still played a club level and in 1996, a new American soccer league was born called Major League Soccer and one of the first phone calls made when they needed players was to Valderrama.
Knowing a wound was still open in Colombia as the country tried to heal from Escobar’s death, he took the chance and signed with Tampa Bay Mutiny. His playing in MLS led him back to the Colombian national team where he captained the team in France ‘98.
Following the 1998 World Cup, he retired from international duty and returned to MLS and played for Miami Fusion. In 2002, he hung up his boots as a player for Colorado Rapids.
After he stopped playing, Valderrama was still an international icon.
As the Millennium hit, appreciation for his playing was at an all-time high. He was named one of the top 100 footballers of the 20th century by World Soccer magazine. In 2004, he was added to the FIFA 100, where soccer’s governing body recognized him as one of the best ever. Pele even named him as one of the “100 Greatest Living Footballers” to celebrate the 100th anniversary of FIFA.
In 2007, he became an assistant manager with Colombian side Juniors and lasted just a year.
The father of five is still a national treasure. In his hometown of Santa Marta, a bronze statue of him was erected in his honor, it was adorned with a fuzzy yellow wig to represent his hair.
As he makes appearances around the world as an ambassador for the game, he still elicits smiles from fans. People recall what he did and how it has never been seen again.
It seems he still appreciates the everlasting love and impact he had on the game. As he goes around the globe, Valderrama still has his signature massive blonde ‘do.