Back in form, Falcao set for Colombia return
Thirty-three miserable months after the injury that tore Falcao from his perch as one of the world's most feared strikers, a light finally blinks at the end of the tunnel.
Eight goals in ten games following a return to the French league with Monaco, including four strikes in his last two games, has helped brush a calamitous spell in the English Premier League into the past. El Tigre's form may growl rather than roar these days, but in his native Colombia these flickers of form have caused more than a stir.
On Sunday night when the 30-year-old's plane touched down in the sweaty port of Barranquilla on Colombia's Caribbean coast, a crowd of eager fans had gathered to welcome a hero home. "We never forget our idols even when times are tough," one excited middle-aged fan observed. "Without Falcao we wouldn't have gone to Brazil; more than anyone he ended our 16-year wait to qualify for a World Cup. Just you watch, he will do it again!"
As a buzz of excitement erupted into a frenzied charge of blinking mobile phones that unsettled the balmy evening air, Falcao drifted through the hordes soaking up the attention. Unlike James Rodriguez, who arrived a day later and jumped straight from the plane into the official Colombian Football Federation car, Falcao stopped to sign autographs, grinned into the camera and departed with a spring in his step.
"It's great to be home," the locally born forward beamed. "I've been waiting and working to get this opportunity for a very long time. Fortunately, I've recently been getting games, I'm back scoring goals and I think I've earned the right to be here."
For Colombia, there's more than just a sentimental nudge to the past at play in bringing their joint all-time top goalscorer in from the cold. In the country's last four World Cup qualifiers, none of Colombia's strikers have found the back of the net. In world football's most competitive qualification region, concern grows that this lack of firepower may end up muddling the road to Russia 2018.
Carlos Bacca, the striker Colombia coach Jose Pekerman has most regularly looked to as a replacement for the toiling Falcao over the last two years, has fluttered between the inconsistent and the downright awful. Bacca was especially poor against Venezuela in September, the AC Milan striker wasting chance after chance as Colombia missed the opportunity to run up the score-line against vastly weaker opposition.
Alternatively, the raw Roger Martinez has huge potential but he has scored just one friendly goal against Haiti so far in his international career, while Jackson Martinez has been erased from the national team fold since his questionable move to China earlier this year. Other options like youngsters Rafael Santos Borre and Marlos Moreno or the Mexican based Dayro Moreno were also all considered and then discarded by Pekerman.
A clear hole remains in the Argentine coach's plans for a proven striker. Falcao's goal-scoring pedigree for Colombia even has journalists clamoring for Falcao to return to the starting XI against Chile on Thursday. If he does, it may also be as a captain.
"Colombia hasn't had an idol like Falcao since Carlos "El Pibe" Valderrama," explained one journalist. "As a player and person he has made Colombians very proud. There are no other leaders in the team, Pekerman has to make him captain against Chile."
Pekerman has more reasons than most for sticking by Falcao. During the injured star's race to get himself fit for the 2014 World Cup following an ACL tear, the Argentine coach promised his leading striker a place in the squad regardless of his fitness. But Falcao refused to take the spot of a teammate and would instead have to watch Colombia's historic performance in Brazil from the stands.
Long after most others had abandoned hope and while well-known Colombian journalist Ivan Mejia continued to describe the all-time Colombia goalscorer as an "ex-player," Pekerman retained faith. He promised Falcao a "big hug" and to restore his confidence by picking him for Colombia just after Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal had sent him to play an U21 game against Spurs in 2015. And the coach would later include an out of sorts Falcao in his 2015 Copa America squad in which Colombia bombed out with a single goal --from a defender nonetheless -- in four games.
More than anything Falcao needed minutes, but at Manchester United and then Chelsea, he was never going to find the regularity that his brittle and bruised confidence so badly needed. "I never knew where I stood," Falcao later confessed to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. "I wasn't given a proper chance."
But as one disappointment crashed into another and the injuries persisted, Pekerman's loyalty stretched only so far. Whether badly advised by omnipotent agent Jorge Mendes or just unlucky, Falcao's career and reputation crumbled. In England in particular, he is remembered as a very costly mistake.
Yet, even after Falcao lost his place in the Colombia team at the end of last year, Pekerman kept in constant touch. "He visited me on several occasions," Falcao told the press after training this Tuesday. "I always had their backing, the door was always open."
Support from fans, the media and the Colombian coaching staff also extends to the rest of the squad who have all been vocal in expressing their delight for having an old hero return home. "Falcao represents something special for Colombia," Arsenal goalie David Ospina explains. "Both on and off the pitch he's so important and we're all delighted he's back."
Against Chile this week, it's a boost Colombia desperately need. Points dropped in their last home game against Uruguay and FIFA's decision to award Chile three points after Bolivia fielded an ineligible player has squeezed the gap between the two countries to a single point.
In the corresponding fixture at the last qualifiers, the pressure was also on to get a result. Chile led 3-0 at half time puncturing Colombian hopes of wrapping up their first World Cup qualification in 16 years. Colombia hit back in a pulsating second half and secured a 3-3 draw through two coolly finished penalties from Falcao.
Three years on, the Monaco frontman is still waiting to add an official goal to that tally. The Estadio Metropolitano on Thursday may provide the perfect stage.
Carl Worswick is a British journalist who has spent the last four years living in the Colombian capital Bogota. He writes for the likes of The Blizzard, World Soccer, WSC and Fifa.com and will be in Brazil this summer writing about the Colombian national team.