“My first memories from my childhood are being with him inside a dressing room, at training sessions, him taking me by the hand,” Radamel Falcao says. His is a family story, which makes it a football story too, told through photographs and in the quiet, almost gentle voice that characterises him, a hint of timidity in the man they call “The Tiger.”
It is not just that each stage of Falcao’s remarkable career is captured on camera all the way back to Lanceros Boyacá – from River Plate to Porto, from Atletico Madrid to Manchester United, from Chelsea to Galatasaray and now, at Rayo Vallecano — it is that each stage of his childhood is too, charted from club to club. In the family album, he appears in red, blue, white and yellow, just a little kid, but a little bigger each time. He does so alongside his favourite footballer, dressed in the same kit: Independiente de Medellín, Deportivo Táchira, Mineros de Guayana and the rest.
Radamel Enrique García King played for Colombia at the 1980 Olympic Games. He also played for eight different clubs across Colombia and Venezuela. Radamel Falcao García Zárate, his son, followed him everywhere. When his father retired in 1996, Falcao was 10 years old. Incredibly, he was also only three years from his own professional debut and it would soon be Radamel Sr.’s turn to go to games, roles reversed.
In January 2019, Falcao’s father sadly passed away. He had seen his son play at six clubs in six different countries and score more goals for Colombia than anyone else ever, arguably the greatest footballer in their history.
Now at Rayo Vallecano, Falcao wears No. 3. It is an unusual number for a striker, but it is the number his father wore. There could be no better homage. Except of course that the whole thing is: his whole career, arguably the best any Colombian has ever had, who he is and the way he is too.
Falcao speaks softly; there is just one word he really stresses, really projects, in the conversation and it is the moment he defines the impact his father had on him. “Muchísima,” he says.
“My passion for this game was born because of him,” Falcao says.
“I got so much advice from him. The values with which I make my way through life, and this game, were inherited from my father. He was a vital person in all aspects of my life.”
A few years ago, Radamel Sr. spoke at a conference under the title “How to Make a Tiger of Your Son,” and there was certainly something in that. Radamel’s nickname wasn’t given to him by his father – it was rather the work of Gonzalo Ludueña when he was playing in the seventh tier at River — but so much else was, including his position and his actual name. Falcao is not the Rayo striker’s surname, but his middle name, after the former Brazilian international Paulo Falcao.
Some player, that’s for sure. No pressure, kid. There’s a smile.
“Well, at least he had good taste,” Falcao says, laughing softly.
“He enjoyed good football and he had an admiration for Falcao. I’ve never had the chance to meet him. Obviously, I’d love to meet him: I’m named in his honour. In the end, my dad convinced my mother to let him name me like him.”
Was that hard?
“I imagine so.”
Radamel was a defender, but a father wants the best for his son.
“He always encouraged me to become a forward,” Falcao says.
“He was a defender and told me that defenders suffer a lot. Strikers have more fun.”
That joy remains. Falcao’s attitude – his approach, the enthusiasm for it all – is inherited. The awareness comes from his father too. Playing the game meant that Radamel Sr could guide his son, mould him and prepare him; he could ready him for reality, too.
“I had the possibility of suckle on professional football, to take it all in,” Falcao recalls. “Being surrounded by professional football players inside a dressing room, learning how to handle yourself, seeing the care a player must take, the efforts they had to make, the discipline. At a very early age, living all of this gave me the chance to say that [playing professional football] was what I wanted to do once I got older.”
He didn’t have to get very much older.
“In Colombia, there used to be a rule that those teams in the Second Division had to field players under 16, even if it was for just a minute,” Falcao explains, smiling at the scenario that gave him a debut so young. “All the club’s [U16] players were either injured or sent off, so there wasn’t anyone else available. I stood out [in my team], but they didn’t have me in their plans to play [in the first team] that season. In the end, they had no other choice than to put me on the field…”
It wasn’t the way it was planned, but it was a start of a career that would make Falcao one of the best finishers in the game – may be the very best. Three hundred goals rattled in at a ridiculous rate. He scored 72 in 87 games at Porto, and 70 in 92 at Atlético Madrid. Nor was it just his club; it went beyond that. It is almost a decade since he left, but the mark he made in Madrid is still there. Universally popular, there was – there still is – a humility that helped explain his success, but tends to be lost as soon as that success arrives.
There is no easy way to do justice to just how good he was the last time he was here, and how significant. This entire Atlético era begins with him. He was the resurrection. He led them to a UEFA Cup, Diego Simeone phoning his kids up post-game and admiringly asking “Did you see Falcao?!” – a coach turned fan. Falcao’s final game for the club was the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid, at the Bernabéu. Atletico won, which was the first time they had beaten their city rivals in over a decade, going back 24 games, the curse broken.
He hadn’t really wanted to go but that summer he departed for France, where injury, interrupted everything. Even if he had left Atlético, there had been reports that he would soon be back in the city. Real Madrid were interested, something club president Florentino Pérez would later admit publicly. And so, it seemed, was he. There was even a tweet – hurriedly deleted – that suggested the deal was done to take him to the Bernabéu, “a dream come true.”
“There was talk about it, there was speculation about that possibility,” he admits now.
And was that possibility real?
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. At that time, with the rivalry there and with my identification with Atlético, which was very strong, I don’t think there was any chance of it happening.”
Now, though, he really is back. At Rayo Vallecano of all places, the tiny team from the working-class neighbourhood to the east of the city. It’s not the kind of place players like him are supposed to turn up, but a conversation with Rayo midfielder Mario Suarez – a teammate back at Atlético – made it happen. Suárez was the one that set the ball rolling, suggesting to the club that this could really happen.
“The relationship with Mario had continued, we kept on talking after I left Atlético Madrid [and] the possibility opened up,” Falcao says. “He told me a little about the club and helped me decide.”
Here it is tempting to conclude that Suárez can’t have told him everything about the club. Rayo is, put bluntly, a bit of a mess of a club. Fortunately, as a team, it was different. As a city, too, which is why there was a certain logic in making the change. When Falcao returned to Madrid, there was something almost incredulous about the reaction, a joy in having him back, an icon that everybody could embrace. There was a warmth towards him that was mutual.
“I prioritised staying in a competitive league, [I wanted] to remain an important piece for the national team, to enjoy La Liga in Spain, a competition I already knew very well. The chance to join Rayo made sense in every way; with this highly talented squad, I felt very excited and the ability of the team,” Falcao explains.
“I’m very happy to have joined the club. I think we’ve had a great first half of the season. In January, we’ve had a run that hasn’t been that positive, but the team is confident that, with hard work and ability, we’re going to get through it.”
“Madrid was a city that marked me a lot,” he continues.
“We lived many beautiful moments as a family, not just in sport. For Latin Americans, it’s a strategic place within Europe. We feel very comfortable [here], the customs are the most like Latin America, and adjusting here is easy for us.”
“For me and my family, it has been very exciting. I came with the hope and enthusiasm to give the club my goals, my football, and help this squad. This is something beautiful that me and my family will never forget. I thank this club and above all the Rayo supporters who have welcomed me in the best way possible.”
And when he scored in his first game… well, the whole place went wild.
Falcao had only been back 10 minutes and 24 seconds and already the ball was in the net, a familiar sight brought back to Spain. One that goes back a long, long time. “I dreamed of coming on and scoring,” he said that day. He meant in that match, a 3-0 win against Getafe, but it went deeper – much deeper than that. As Vallecas celebrated, barely able to believe that this was actually happening right here, right now, that he was here, Falcao embraced his teammates and then pointed to the sky and raised his hands to his father, with whom it had all begun.
Falcao is 36 now. It is 23 – twenty-three — years since he made his professional debut, but there’s still something almost child-like about him; still that kid, perhaps, wearing his father’s colours and looking up his idol, who takes him by the hand and whose loves guides him through the game.
“The day that I stop feeling it, that’s the moment I’ll step aside,” Falcao says.
“To wake up each morning, enjoy training sessions, giving my best. The passion I have for this game: it’s how I’ve lived it since I was a very young boy.”
Note: This interview has been published at ESPN FC taken by Sid Lowe