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Black History Month: The iconic El Pibe

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You always knew where he was on the field. And no matter where he was, he could set up the pass that would destroy your team.

Carlos Valderrama

The style. The intelligence. The moustache. The trademark blonde curly afro. Carlos Valderrama is one of the most recognizable players in the history of soccer. What defined him was his preference for the great assist, looking for his teammates instead of the goal. He played the game with grace, with an agility a running back would kill to have and feet faster than a tap dancer. He played with no frills and no worries on the field, and that’s why he’s known simply as “El Pibe” (“The Kid”).

Valderrama was a son of Colombia, and it’s where he gained his style as well as his skill. His 22-year career began with Unión Magdalena and then Millonarios before he moved to Deportivo Cali. Deportivo Cali is where he truly excelled at the Colombian game, scoring 22 goals in 3 seasons and having technical ability that was light years beyond the rest of the league.

In 1988, he moved to Montpellier, and it took him a while to adapt to the more physical European game. He was used to wide open spaces, the ability to carve out passes, and sending long balls whose beauty could live in any art museum. That passing ability would endure in Europe, and he would win the French Cup in 1990 with Montpellier. After that, he left France for Real Valladolid in Spain’s La Liga, where he would remain for the season before returning to Colombia to play for Independiente Medellín. He was there for a season before going to Atlético Junior, where he would win 2 league titles.

Carlos Valderrama joined the national team in 1985 and captained his team in 3 World Cups (1990, 1994, 1998). He also took part in 5 Copa Américas from 1987 until 1995. He was the 1987 Copa América MVP, but his best performance may have been in the 1990 World Cup, where he dazzled the world in several matches. In 1994, injuries hampered his ability to perform at a world class level, and Colombia would exit in the group stage of the World Cup.

Valderrama wasn’t done with the United States after the 1994 World Cup. In 1996, he shocked Colombia by leaving his home country to become a part of the Tampa Bay Mutiny in Major League Soccer, which was embarking on its first year as a league. He was one of the best players in the league, humiliating opponents with surgical passing to set up his teammates. The Mutiny won the first-ever Supporters’ Shield, and El Pibe was named the first MVP of the league. They would lose to D.C. United in the MLS Cup playoffs.

El Pibe was in Tampa for 2 seasons before moving to the Miami Fusion for 2 more. He would return to the Mutiny for 3 more seasons before ending his career with the Colorado Rapids in 2002. Throughout that time, no one could take over a game with the pass better than Valderrama. In 2000, he set the MLS single season assists record with 26, a record that many in the league consider “unbreakable.” He ended his MLS career with 16 goals and 114 assists in 175 appearances. That assist number is good for 4th on the all-time list.

There was a knack to Valderrama’s game in that his reputation grew for being a player that played with a poor work ethic, particularly on defense, and not having the right fitness to play a physical style of soccer. However, some would argue that perception was based on the reality that Valderrama’s game was effortless. His balance, his control, and even a bit of flair made him look at times like a human cheat code. An opponent would think he was going to go to his left, and El Pibe would in the blink of an eye dart past him on the right, sending a ball through traffic to a forward streaking down the left side toward goal. He could offer precise crosses with either foot, and the ball always seemed to find the right man. While he was not known as the best defending midfielder, he would track back often to start the attack from well inside his own half. Still, it would only take seconds for him to quarterback the ball down the field into a position for his team to score.

Carlos Valderrama was life for Colombia. He’s their best player ever, and he took their game to new heights. He’s one of the greatest players to ever play the game, and his game was as effortless as the way his blonde afro bounced up and down on the field. You could always find him in a crowd, but it was within that crowd that he’d find a way to beat you. He could show his cards and then dress you down anyway. And that’s why El Pibe was a global icon in the game of soccer.

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This story concludes our daily series of Black History Month stories for 2020. This was a journey that I began a couple years ago for personal knowledge and growth throughout an important month to me, and I am honored that I had the opportunity to bring these stories to you everyday throughout the month of February. If you missed an article or want to re-read any of them that you enjoyed over the past few years, check out our Black History Month hub. I hope that all of you can routinely refer to those articles, as they are stories that should be told and retold long after we leave February in the rearview. Thank you so much to all of you who read, commented, or shared these stories this month. Black History Month may be over, but the journey for knowledge continues. Let’s continue to educate ourselves and continue to grow as soccer fans and as people. History is made everyday, and together we can not only make it but bring those stories that deserve to be told to light and, most importantly, keep them there.