Bernd Schuster. Eric Cantona. George Weah. Ryan Giggs. George Best. Alfredo Di Stéfano. All will be remembered as some of the greatest players ever, but not one of them ever took part in a World Cup. Radamel Falcao could so nearly have joined that list, but the Monaco striker is set to make his first World Cup appearance in Russia this summer at the age of 32.
He must have been wondering what he had done wrong to have been shoved to the outside every four years with his nose pressed against the glass, looking in. “I don’t get it,” he must have thought, echoing the words of Lisa Simpson. “Straight A’s, perfect attendance, bathroom timer, I should be the most popular girl in school.” But in the world of football, as in Springfield Elementary, hard work and talent doesn’t always pay off when it comes to wangling an invite.
Falcao started his Colombia career at the age of 20, just after the 2006 World Cup. Los Cafeteros didn’t qualify for the Germany-based tournament, but with a player of El Tigre’s quality they might have been able to get the one extra point they needed to earn a play-off had he been born just a few years earlier. It was a case of bad timing for the player and for the national team.
In the race to make it to South Africa in 2010 Falcao did feature, but only towards the end of the qualification process, and the national team once again missed out on a play-off spot by just one point. At the end of the gruelling 18-match South American qualification process, the finest margins are sometimes the most important.
By the time of the 2014 qualification campaign, something was different. Falcao had moved to Europe, first to Porto in 2009 and then to Atlético Madrid in 2012, and he was making a name for himself as one of the most prolific strikers in world football. He wasn’t the only one, as a whole new generation of talented players broke though at the same time and also gained elite-level experience by moving to European leagues. “This national squad, with a new generation of players, is making history,” Jackson Martínez explained at the time. “Nowadays nearly all of us are playing in Europe and I think we’ve got a wider variety of players and talent than we did at the 1994 World Cup.”
Comparisons with the 1994 generation were made again and again after Colombia finished second in the South American qualifying group, thanks to the goals of Falcao (who scored nine in 13 matches) and Teófilo Gutiérrez, thanks to the assists of James Rodríguez, thanks to the leadership and defensive ability of the veteran Mario Yepes, who helped the youngsters to settle into the side, and thanks to the calming coaching of José Pékerman.
Expectations were sky high and legends such as Carlos Valderrama were confident that this squad could go to Brazil and do better than his side when they were dark horses for USA 94. But then, disaster struck. Specifically, it struck Falcao’s left knee.
A heavy challenge in a Coupe de France win over Monts d’Or Azergues Foot in January of 2014 meant Falcao required surgery, and it was always going to be a race against time to be fit enough to go to Brazil. In the end, he made the provisional 30-man squad, but wasn’t deemed fit enough to make the final cut, with Pékerman making a decision that he called the saddest of his time in charge of Colombia. Falcao was devastated too. “I’m not going to deny that my sadness is huge and my heart is broken,” he explained. Without their marksman, Colombia still did well at the tournament and were inspired to the quarter-finals by James Rodríguez, but there was a lingering sense of ‘what if’ as Falcao watched on from home.
Now, four years later, Falcao is ready to finally fulfil his childhood dream of appearing at football’s biggest festival, although it has not been easy to make it to this stage. The CONMEBOL qualification race to Russia 2018 was as competitive as it has been in decades and Colombia were made to huff, puff and sweat for their ticket. On an individual level, it took Falcao more than two years to fully recover after that knee injury, both in a physical and mental sense.
A return to Monaco has done him the world of good after a difficult time in England and he is preparing for this summer’s tournament in his comfort zone, scoring 23 goals already in France this season in 29 appearances. His hamstrings have on occasion forced him to the sidelines, but everything points to Falcao being ready to rock and roll in Russia in just three months’ time.
He is clearly excited about his plans for this summer, and he should be. Like a little kid counting down the schooldays before a summer trip to Disneyland, the 32-year-old isn’t downplaying his joy at finally going to a World Cup. “I’ve often pictured myself scoring at the World Cup,” he recently admitted in an interview with FIFA. “I couldn’t tell you how many times, but it’s a lot!”
And if he does score in Russia this summer, the rest of the world will surely smile – perhaps with the exception of those from Poland, Japan and Senegal, the three nations sharing a group with Falcao and co. It has been a long wait for one of the best strikers of the 21st century to make it to the tournament where he belongs. But it will surely be worth it.