That morning, in October of 2005, Radamel Falcao García Zárate was really nervous. The coach of River Plate, one of the most important football1 teams in Argentina, had just called him to his room.
This afternoon, you are starting in the first team, kid. Don’t be nervous, everything will be OK. But don’t tell anyone. They will find out when the time comes.
It was lunchtime. The boy was nauseous, he couldn’t eat a thing. His team mates gobbled up the classic pre-game spaghetti; he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t help thinking about all the years he had spent preparing himself for this moment: his entire life.
Although, truth to tell, the preparation had begun before he was born, in Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1986. His father baptized him with his own name –Radamel – and the name of a Brazilian football star whom he admired: Falcao. His father was a professional football player, though his career had not been brilliant. He never stayed with one team for very long, and his family travelled with him to different cities in Colombia and Venezuela, following his contracts. But when his first son, Radamel, was born, he decided that he would be a great football player, and gave him the name of his idol.
Little Falcao learned to kick a ball before he could talk. His first memories are connected to football. His father taught him, encouraged him, took him to his games, to his training sessions. And Falcao did as expected: nothing mattered to him more than the ball. When Falcao was ten, his father retired and the family settled in Bogota. There, Falcao joined a football club and he was soon catching the eye of the trainers.
That’s when I got convinced that I could be a real football player. So I decided to give it my all, that my future lay there.
When was that?
When I was eleven or twelve. I began to play for the city team first, then for the Colombian team. That’s when I saw that I had to dedicate all of my time to this. I understood that I really had to live for football.
In Latin America, most boys dream about being football players. And thousands of them can hold onto that dream into their adolescence: they are the best, the ones who get into the youth divisions of the professional football teams. Falcao was one of many such kids until, one Saturday when he was 14, his coach told him to get ready because the next day he was travelling to Buenos Aires: a businessman had organized a tryout with River Plate.
Falcao was overjoyed: Argentina was one of his goals. He had always followed Argentine football, one of the most powerful leagues in South America. Besides, his coach had been to Buenos Aires and told him a lot about it. He liked the idea of it:
An old and beautiful football-loving city. A city with different seasons, very warm people, whose way of speaking is so funny. It was always my dream to come here.
Were you scared?
No, I was not scared. My mind was made up, and I was hungry for success. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and, with God’s help, I didn’t want to let it go by.
The tryout went well. They offered him a contract and set him up in a hotel. He had to learn to live alone in a city that was not his own. At the beginning, he was not homesick. Only after a year, when an injury put him on the disabled list for months, did he grow discouraged; there were moments when all he wanted to do was go home and forget about everything. He was 16 years old. At an age when most young people are beginning to think about what to study, where to work, the course of their lives, the football rookies have their fate on the line. Many have to leave their cities, their studies, their amusements, their friends. They know that this is their only shot.
It is a very dull life: training, watching what you eat, going to bed early, seeing everyone else doing things that you can’t. Sometimes it bothered me a lot, it exasperated me. But then I told myself that I was here for a reason, that I had to sacrifice everything to make it.
Nine out of ten don’t: at the age of 18 or 19, they consider themselves failures, people who have missed the boat. Falcao did not want to be one of those people, and he found the strength to endure. He trained more and more, learned to be strong and not to fall into temptation, to convince himself that his goal was the most important thing. A professional football player must be obsessed with competition and victory.
"Some years ago football players migrated when they were eighteen or twenty, now it is common for them to leave their countries soon after they turn twelve."
At the beginning of 2005, Falcao was promoted to the first team, but he never got a chance to play. Until that October morning, when his coach told him that his day had come.
That afternoon, when I was getting dressed, my legs were shaking. But when I hit the field, I was transformed. The stadium was full, people were shouting, and I realized that I felt that hunger, that drive to beat anyone who crossed my path, that adrenalin, that confidence. It is something that you cannot explain, you have to experience it.
That October afternoon was perfect: River Plate won and Falcao scored two of the three goals. The next day, all the newspapers were talking about the great new talent, about the guy that was going to put an end to his team’s losing streak. In the next six games, Falcao scored five more goals. He was becoming a star.
It’s an incredible feeling. Suddenly, from one day to the next, your life changes. You can’t go anywhere, people recognize you on the street, your team mates look up to you.
And you can even make a lot of money...
Yes, it’s amazing how much some players earn. You make a fortune, and they are paying you to do what you like doing. You just have to play and they pay you, though you do have to make sacrifices, you miss out on a lot. But today football players are models for many people. They are in ads for all sorts of things. A lot of people dress like football players, or get haircuts like football players. It’s strange to think that maybe someday there will be kids who try to do the things that I do…
On November 22, 2005, everything seemed to go to pieces: Falcao’s knee was seriously injured, and he would not be able to play for many months.
At the beginning, I was really down in the dumps. I asked myself why this had to happen to me now, why God had done something like this to me. Then I realized that these things happen for a reason. They help you to grow up and mature. They can be for the best. I think that helped me to keep it together, to know that I should not take it so seriously: everything can vanish at any moment. I understood that I had to be strong and present, to stick with it.
Falcao knows that coming back is going to be rough. Many promising young players are injured. Some of them can overcome it; some cannot. He is now eagerly awaiting that moment, while getting on with his studies. Last year, he enrolled in a journalism programme at a university in Buenos Aires. Though he does not have much time to study, he says that it is better to do something unrelated to football, to get an education, to open his mind to other things.
In football, you can be lucky and become a big star, you can do OK and play as well as many, or you can be unlucky and not make the big leagues. It’s a lottery. You never know what will happen. You give it your all, but you have to be prepared to lose. You depend on too many factors: luck, teams, injuries…
Falcao lives in an apartment in a tall modern building in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires. From his living room, you can see the river, the River Plate stadium as well as the most brutal concentration camp of the Argentine dictatorship in the 1970s. His father, his mother and his sisters live with him: the boy has become the breadwinner. Throughout South America, fathers and mothers who twenty or thirty years ago would have scolded their sons if they saw them “wasting time with a ball,” now encourage them, because football can offer them a better standard of living than any other profession. The stakes are high, and Falcao cannot stop imagining his future.
I think about it a lot, I have a lot of dreams. I want to go to Europe, to play with the best in the world
Where would you like to go?
To Real Madrid, to Milan, to the big teams.
Do you think that is possible?
Yes. River sells players to the best teams in the world. Everything depends on how I do.
For many Latin American players, Buenos Aires is a stop on the way to Europe: the springboard from which they can reach, once and for all, the wealth and fame that they have sought since they were children. Since they were very young, most young players from Latin America have one goal: performing well on their teams so that they are “bought” by a European team. Buying is a strong word.
And the idea of moving from country to country doesn’t bother you?
No. That’s the way a football player's life is, always moving, going after the best. In this profession, if you are lucky you can get everything you want, even the greatest luxuries.
What luxuries would you like?
Well, mostly a car. A BMW convertible, that kind of thing …
Falcao emigrated for the first time when he was 14, and he thinks he will keep doing it. He still has a close connection to Colombia: his countrymen can admire him on television, he has played for the Colombian youth league, and he hopes to play for the national team. But he is no longer certain that he will return to Colombia to live.
I used to think I would, but now I am not so sure. I feel more comfortable here, in Argentina. If I go to Europe, maybe I will want to stay there. Who knows if I will ever live in my country again, after all this?