It seems somewhat amazing that Radamel Falcao, one of the most devastating South American strikers to play in European football over the last decade, has never played for either of the Spanish super-clubs, Real Madrid or Barcelona.
In an age where players of a certain calibre – think Gonzalo Higuaín, Sami Khedira or Alvaro Morata – transfer between the elite clubs on a never-ending carousel, Falcao has spent his career playing with top level teams such as Porto, Atletico Madrid and Monaco, but he has never graced a Spanish super-club targeting league or Champions League success.
It is in this regard that Falcao stands as the last of the old school strikers, a hometown hero type player who has beaten a path with teams whom often find themselves hamstrung in their quest for greatness with their best talent stolen on an annual basis.
Falcao has played for clubs such as Atletico Madrid, Porto and Monaco; clubs well accustomed to selling yet Falcao has stayed at this level throughout his career, an elite player fighting for his teams against the incoming tide of the era of the super-club.
El Tigre is the nickname that has epitomised Falcao as a player; explosive, powerful running contrasted with a velvety touch an electric turn of pace to outwit opponents. Falcao also combines incredible aerial skills with an affection for athletic bicycle kicks.
Prior to a 2014 anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, Falcao was one of the world’s most devasting strikers with game changing talent almost equivalent to a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldinho from his early Barcelona years or Kaka from his AC Milan pomp.
Falcao was a player of the highest calibre, possessing a first touch that often-rendered opposition sides defenceless. A 2014 article in The Guardian described Falcao as the complete striker, akin to Marco van Basten or Andriy Shevchenko in their prime.
Falcao’s talent was evident from an early age and at 23 he joined Porto from River Plate. At Porto he played for two seasons under Jesualdo Ferreira and Andre Villas Boas scoring 41 goals in 51 games, winning the Europa League in 2011, before earning a €40 million move to Atletico Madrid.
Atletico was probably the greatest period of Falcao’s career scoring 52 goals in 68 games for Atletico, including Europa League top scorer in 2012 on route to winning the competition for a second successive season. Falcao scored a devastating first half hat-trick for Atlético Madrid against Chelsea in the Super Cup in 2012-13.
It was a scintillating, individual performance against an English side reminiscent of Ronaldo, when he singlehandedly destroyed Manchester United at Old Trafford a decade earlier.
It was in 2013 that Monaco paid €60 million to bring Falcao to the principality. Falcao started his Monaco career with nine goals in 17 appearances.
Disaster soon struck in January 2014 in Monaco’s Coupe de France tie against Monts d’Or Azergues when Falcao went down clutching his left knee.
His worst fears were realised and an anterior cruciate ligament injury was diagnosed. The timing could not have been worse; Falcao was barely six months away from a Latin World Cup at which he was expected to lead the charge of a Colombian team arguably two decades past its best.
Despite promising early signs, El Tigre would not play at the World Cup.
Following the tournament, Monaco loaned Falcao to Manchester United under the management of Louis Van Gaal. Starved of chances in a stagnant team, El Tigre looked timid at Old Trafford and was physically dominated by opposition defenders.
Fans queried Falcao’s fitness after photos emerged from the dressing room where Falcao was seen icing his knee after a game. Following a single season at Old Trafford, Falcao moved to Chelsea for a further loan spell.
It was evident that Falcao was struggling to regain his pre-injury fitness and Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim would later say that the physicality presented by the English Premier League was an entirely inappropriate setting for Falcao to recover from his cruciate injury.
It is very probable that injury robbed us – by this I mean, footballing fans everywhere – of what would have been the very greatest years of Radamel Falcao’s career. Falcao was 28 when he injured his ACL and it was two and a half years before El Tigre roared again with anything similar to his former form.
The post-injury Falcao lacked the same explosiveness but had evolved into a clever finisher, patrolling the penalty area and running the channels less frequently.
Falcao’s 2016-2017 season alongside Kylian Mbappe was an outstanding throwback to his former years, including two highlight reel goals to eliminate Manchester City from the Champions League in February of that year.
Between 1980 and 1996, not a single winner of the Ballon D’Or played for either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Since 1997 however, we have had 21 winners of the Ballon D’Or and all but two (Andriy Shevchenko and Pavel Nedved) have played for either Madrid or Barcelona at some point in their careers (with Figo and Ronaldo playing for both).
Furthermore, since 2009 Barcelona and Real Madrid have consistently had at least one player each in the top three and on some occasions (2009-2012, 2015) occupied each of the top three positions.
It is with this in mind that we frame our surprise that a talent of Radamel Falcao’s ability has not featured for either of those super-clubs.
While Falcao had chosen his clubs wisely up until the point of his injury, it is very likely that has his career trajectory continued in the direction it was headed, he might have found himself at a super-club as cog in a much bigger project.
Had that devastating injury not occurred, he might well have followed compatriot James Rodriguez from Monaco to Real Madrid in 2014 and completed what is not seen as the footballing legacy of playing for one of the super-clubs in Spain.
Having said that, Argentinian journalist Juan Pablo Varsky once wrote that if the paparazzi became reliant on Radamel Falcao, a man who preferred staying in watching tv, they would starve. Had a player of Falcao’s ability agitated for a move to a super-club, it is likely he would have achieved his goal.
It is very possible that Falcao, a devout Christian, purposefully eschews the limelight trust upon Galacticos and their ilk and is perfectly happy at top level clubs without the pressure and expectancy which has seen many of the aforementioned strikers – Gonzalo Higuain and Alvaro Morata – regularly returned to the transfer carousel after being churned out of the most elite of clubs.
The argument for Radamel Falcao as a player choosing to hone his craft away from top tier super clubs is not without its caveats. It should be noted that Falcao wore the Atletico Madrid shirt for two seasons under Diego Simeone.
Atletico have defeated practically all of the European elite and achieved some of their finest successes in the last decade, but their financial situation has resulted in their talent often being poached by larger clubs.
Falcao played for Manchester United in 2014/2015, receiving a reported £265,000 a week for his troubles, but it was a post-Ferguson era Manchester United yearning for big names signings to add credibility to their new brand.
Furthermore, in a bizarre twist, prior to that move he sent out a tweet informing his followers that he was signing for Real Madrid before immediately deleting the content. He would later be linked with Barcelona in 2015 and 2018.
If there is one way in which American sports have consistently done better than others – beyond their event spectacles – it’s their equity of the talent across and the guarantee that most teams have their guy, their outstanding talent that can strike fear into the opposition.
Super teams are rare – save for the Lebron era Miami Heat – and each “franchise” has their designated talent that could feature on any team in the league. This is a feature eroding in elite European football due to the incredible money available to the bigger teams and the disparity within leagues.
It is sad but it seems in the modern age, we would never see the likes of Stanley Matthews at Blackpool, Diego Maradona at Napoli or even more recently, Henrik Larsson at Glasgow Celtic.
Nowadays all of the world’s greatest footballers choose to play together, rather than in opposition teams and it has the effect of removing an element of competition from the game.
Radamel Falcao has somewhat bucked that trend over the course of his career and – however intentional or not – he has been a throwback player, that reminder that not all the best players need to play for Real Madrid or Barcelona to truly prove their worth as an amazing talent.
While Falcao may very well have played for one of these teams had it not been for the timing of his worst career injury, he has gallantly fought the fight for the next tier of European football and remains a throwback to when all the best players competed against one another, rather than merely turning out for the same sides.