Robbed of his World Cup dream by injury four years ago, Colombia captain Radamel Falcao has at last realised his childhood dream and has a point to prove against England.
Falcao’s nine goals in qualifying carried the team to a first World Cup for 16 years in Brazil before an ungainly challenge by a schoolteacher in the French Cup in January 2014 inflicted cruciate ligament damage and blew his career off course.
“El Tigre” (The Tiger) was one of the world’s most feared strikers. His $70 million move to Monaco from Atletico Madrid six months earlier was reportedly intended to be a stopgap for a season before he headed to Real Madrid, given the difficulties of directly crossing the divide in the Spanish capital.
Instead, Colombia’s all-time top scorer had to sit and watch alone in a Monaco apartment, completing his rehabilitation as his country went further than ever before at a World Cup.
James Rodriguez was crowned Colombia’s new golden boy as he won the Golden Boot with six goals and was only stopped by some robust Brazilian tactics in the quarter-finals.
In trying to rush back in time to make the World Cup in 2014, Falcao only put more strain on his body and ultimately prolonged his recovery time.
Despite doubts over his fitness, his reputation remained intact. Manchester United and then Chelsea were tempted to take a punt on paying his wages for loan spells.
In 41 games in England over two campaigns, though, the once-prolific Falcao scored just five goals.
“There are times when one breaks down,” he told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo of his time in England. “There are difficult situations that one cannot contain and like any human being, I cried.”
Only once back in Monaco and given a regular run in the team to find his fitness and form did the old Falcao return.
– ‘Banging goals in’ –
He scored 30 goals, leading a prodigiously talented group of youngsters, including Kylian Mbappe, to beat big-spending Paris Saint-Germain to the French title in 2016-17 and to the Champions League semi-finals.
“It’s all about confidence and having a regular run in the team,” Falcao told UEFA.com. “A footballer never forgets how to play football. I’m convinced that game time, matches, was all I needed because ultimately no one forgets how to score goals.”
England defender Gary Cahill has seen Falcao at his best and worst. Cahill was on the receiving end of what the Colombian describes as one of his top-five performances when he scored a first-half hat-trick as Atletico thrashed Chelsea in the 2012 UEFA Super Cup, and also played with him at at Stamford Bridge.
“He had frustrations clearly in England,” said Cahill. “But he’s shown good character, he’s found his form and he’s banging goals in again.”
The goal Falcao most dreamed of came one week ago, at the age of 32, as he scored for the first time at a World Cup to launch Colombia towards the last 16 in a 3-0 win over Poland.
“It’s the goal I’ve been dreaming of since I was a child,” he said.
“I realise that all of Colombia had been waiting for this moment, supporting me, lifting me at difficult times, and in the end I want to thank the Colombian people for being with me unconditionally.”
With James facing a race against time to be fit, it is now Falcao’s turn to carry Colombian hopes and persuade any remaining English doubters that he is back to being the striker the world once feared in Moscow on Tuesday.