In December 2012 Radamel Falcao scored five of Atletico Madrid’s goals in a 6-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna at the Vicente Calderon. Naturally, there was some amazement at what El Tigre had done, but at the time most people considered him inferior only to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, so it was almost expected.
Three years on, Falcao, aged 29 and in the midst of what should be the peak of his footballing career, is having his place in the Colombian national side severely questioned.
After a weak 1-0 defeat to Venezuela in the Copa America, coach Jose Pekerman could have to drop his malfunctioning captain, who managed just four goals for Manchester United last season.
Five in a match, to four in a season, how does that happen? Three letters: ACL.
For a typical person, an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury would normally take between eight to twelve months to get back to full fitness. For a top sportsman like Falcao, rehabilitation can be accelerated to get them back in action within six months.
Falcao suffered a torn ACL in his left knee on January 22 2014, and was operated on three days later, 20 weeks before the start of Colombia’s 2014 World Cup campaign.
The surgeon, Jose Carlos Noronha, had four years earlier salvaged Portugal defender Pepe’s World Cup dream ahead of the 2010 tournament in South Africa. Noronha, also Portuguese, was hoping for similar results for Falcao, but it was not to be. The roulette wheel of ACL recovery can be cruel.
Recovery from an ACL injury is not just about how long it takes for a player to return to the field either. One of the biggest concerns is how it affects their career long-term.
For some, like Manchester City’s Paul Lake in 1990, it can actually spell the end of a career. There can also be happier stories. For instance, in 1992 Alan Shearer snapped his left ACL, but that did not stop him going on to become the Premier League’s greatest ever goalscorer.
Ruud van Nistelrooy famously had his move to Manchester United delayed by an ACL rupture. The Dutchman would still go on to etch his name into Old Trafford folklore when he did arrive though, scoring 150 goals in five years at the club.
Another interesting example is that of Alessandro Del Piero. In 1998, as a young, bustling centre-forward, Del Piero was struck by the ACL curse. After a year on the sidelines he returned without the pace and agility that had previously made him so dangerous.
Del Piero proved to be a special talent though, as he reinvented himself in a deep-lying role, and in his own words became a better player.
At the moment Falcao’s problems are not as serious as Lake’s, but his once great career is in danger of following a path the likes of Michael Owen and Michael Essien know all too well.
Neither were the same after their respective ACL injuries, and holding down a regular first-team place became their main challenge.
It could still be too early to write Falcao off yet though. The current rut he finds himself in can also be attributed to the fact that he did not have a full pre-season last summer.
After the disappointment of missing the World Cup, his club at the time, Monaco, were trying to offload him due to financial difficulty. This meant that until an 11th hour loan move to United, he had not been part of a regimented fitness programme.
Falcao was then thrust into the United team when not quite ready, and spent the rest of season suffering with a number of niggly injuries, as well as a lack of confidence that has carried over into the Copa America.
The answer may actually come from him losing his place in the Colombia side, both for Falcao and the nation’s fortunes.
Without their all-time record goalscorer the 2014 World Cup saw Los Cafeteros reach the quarter-finals, mainly due to James Rodriguez’s form in a central role that he has been removed from to accommodate Falcao’s return.
For El Tigre himself, some time out of the limelight to settle at a new club and work on his game could be exactly what he needs to reinvigorate his career.
If that fails then so be it. Radamel Falcao will always be known as a player who made his professional debut at 13, and went on to become one of the most lethal goalscorers of his generation, as well as yet another unfortunate loser of ACL roulette.