‘It is better to have lived one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.’
– Old Tibetan proverb
Three years ago, the name Radamel Falcao García Zarate might not have meant an awful lot to football fans across Europe. And those who did know about the deadly Colombian striker plying his trade for River Plate in Argentina would never have predicted just how quickly his star has risen since his arrival in Portugal in 2009 for just over £4m. Now, in the footballing world, Falcao is a household name. The reason? Atlético Madrid’s website sums it up pretty succinctly; “Falcao is goal.”
The birth of ‘El Tigre’
Falcao’s story is both similar and different to that of other top-flight footballers. In his youth he lived football. 5am starts with River Plate, football at school and training after – “it was what I had to do every day.” Like many other young sportsmen and women, Falcao’s dedication to his sport meant that he missed out on many aspects of life which the rest of us took for granted. “I didn’t have the chance to enjoy my adolescence like the majority of people do. I never went to a club in Colombia; my first time was in Argentina. My dad always taught me the responsibilities of a sportsperson and there are some things which aren’t suitable and some which are.”
Falcao spent part of his childhood in Venezuela due to his father’s football career, before moving back to Colombia. His father, Radamel Garcia King, was the person responsible for giving him his distinctive middle name – the name by which he is now known all over the globe – because of his admiration for the Brazilian midfielder Paulo Roberto Falcão.
After regularly impressing as a youngster playing for Millonarios in Colombia, in 2001 Falcao was signed up by River Plate and taken into their world famous academy. The “passion” of the football in Argentina was the reason he decided to move there rather than head for Europe at an early age. “My heart told me that it wanted to be in Argentina.” Four years later he would make his professional debut for River Plate and score seven goals in his first seven games. It was also here at River Plate that Falcao was to earn his famous nickname.
“In Argentina there was a television programme which showed all the Primera División matches every week, and the best player of a game would be named the ‘tiger of the pitch’. In a match with the River Plate U15s my teammate, Gonzalo Ludueña, told me that I had been the ‘tiger of the pitch’, that I had played very well, so for my teammates I became the Tiger and, from then on, everybody’s called me it – in Argentina, Colombia, Portugal. It’s something which identifies me.”
After recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury which slowed down his progress for around two years, Falcao once again began to demonstrate the ability which had put him head and shoulders above his peers during his adolescence. His form and his goals were soon alerting some of Europe’s big boys, and River rejected bids from Deportivo, AC Milan and Aston Villa. Arsenal were also rumoured to be interested in bringing Falcao to London as a replacement for Emmanuel Adebayor. When he did finally move to Europe in 2009, it was Porto, however, who would be rubbing their hands with glee – especially given the bargain basement price that it would turn out to be.
No fuss, just goals
Falcao’s transition from South America to Europe was seamless. In his two short but astounding years at Porto he would score 41 goals in 50 matches, win 1 Portuguese title, 1 Europa League, 2 Portuguese Cups and 3 Portuguese Supercups. He would also break Jurgen Klinsmann’s previous record of 15 goals in the Europa League/UEFA Cup by netting 17 times in just 14 games.
What distinguishes Falcao from other strikers, however, is just how willing he is to make chances for others, as well as take his own. “As a forward I’m always working and fighting so that the team can achieve their objectives. I try to get involved, to create chances for the team during matches. I can contribute through my goals [but] I’m not a typical striker who waits in the area. I don’t want to put personal objectives above those of the team.”
Falcao’s incredible performances in Portugal and in European competition made him one of the continent’s hottest properties, but it would take a huge offer for Porto to even consider letting him go. Atlético Madrid, fresh from selling Sergio Agüero to Manchester City for £38m, decided to hand over the vast majority of that cash to Porto in exchange for their Colombian hitman. The deal was the largest in Portuguese football history and would make Falcao the most expensive Colombian player ever signed. “When the deal was finalized between the two clubs the media went crazy, which made me very happy.”
Upon his arrival at the Vicente Caderón, Falcao stated his desires for the future with Los Colchoneros; “I’m just one more player who has come in order to make the most of his potential, and I hope to be able to do so. With the help of the whole team we can achieve great things.”
Atléti fans who were lamenting the departure of the talismanic Agüero soon realised that they had a new heroic frontman. As if to prove that his form at Porto hadn’t been a fluke, Falcao netted 36 goals in his first season in Spain. He finished as top scorer of the Europa League for a second consecutive year, and also won the tournament for a second consecutive year, becoming the first player to do so with different clubs whilst also being top goalscorer for both clubs. His performance in the Europa League Final against Athletic Bilbao was outstanding. His first goal, after just six minutes, demonstrated his ability to strike the ball just as sweetly with his left foot as with his right, curling the ball into the top corner, giving goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz no chance. His second, under pressure just outside the six-yard box, was the result of a perfect Cruyff turn that threw the defender off balance. He was denied his hat-trick in the 79th minute when his shot cannoned back off the post.
Pep Guardiola described him as “probably the best penalty-box player in the world” and Roberto Soldado has called him a “superb striker”, but he wasn’t done wowing us, even after all that. The 2012 European Supercup gave Falcao the chance to test himself against the supposed might of the Premier League, in the form of Champions League winners Chelsea – a team that prides itself on defensive stability. He ripped them apart. A delicious left-footed chip over the onrushing Petr Cech opened his account on the night before he repeated his left-footed curler from the Europa League Final to get his second. He completed his hat-trick, once again with his left, as he shot under Cech’s body from a tight angle, to end a perfect match. After the game the praise came flooding in. His manager Diego Simeone ensured that “he prepares himself to be the best, what happens doesn’t happen due to chance. He trains to be the best, every day he looks to grow and improve what he has to improve.” Teammates Diego Godín and Matías Suarez described him as “spectacular” and “phenomenal” respectively.
When Falcao was 10 years old he was asked in an interview what he wanted to achieve as a footballer. His response was; “to be someone famous, to leave Colombia, to contribute towards Colombian football when I’m one of the greats.” It’s pretty safe to say that he’s already achieved all three of those. It’s time to get some new ambitions Radamel.