To hell and back: the story of Radamel Falcao's miraculous resurrection
“The saddest thing that can happen to a person is to find out that their memories are lies.”
"Could that happen to him?"
Chasselay, January 22nd, 2014: Monts d'Or Azzergues Foot vs AS Monaco, Round of 32, Le Coupe de France:
He saw the striker drag the ball under his studs, making a smooth turn at the same time, to set himself up for a shot at goal.
Soner Ertek had been living a rather normal life up until that evening.
A primary school teacher who played football on the weekends with fourth division side Monts d'Or Azergues Foot, he'd been playing football at this semi-professional level for nine years; just one amongst the countless journeymen who immigrate to ply their trade, unnoticed and uncelebrated, across the small towns and villages of Western Europe.
Until that evening no one outside the village of Chasselay would have even recognised him.
Until that evening.
You see, that was the evening that would change everything.
As the striker charged into the box, sensing that he was going to bag his second goal of the match, muscles tightening in anticipation, cocking his leg as he was about to let fly... Ertek decided to take action.
The Turkish immigrant knew he was unlikely to ever face this calibre of opposition again in his playing career and damn him if he wasn't going to try and do something he could tell his grandkids about... "kids, let me tell you about the time I stopped the world's best striker" ...
He slid into the tackle - a touch too wild, a touch too late, a touch too slow... the tackle of an amateur, if you will - and caught the striker hard on the side of his knee.
He had done it. He had stopped him. No goal. No penalty either... after the referee inexplicably decided it wasn't a foul.
There was no malicious intent, no hidden violence, Ertek was not that kind of a defender and although the striker had felt the full force of it, it didn't look like much more than the average tough challenge we see week-in and week-out in football. Even when Ertek saw him getting stretchered off, he didn't sense just how bad it was going to be...
"He had already scored and Monaco were 1-0 up when I tackled him in our penalty area five minutes before half-time. I didn’t even feel I had touched him. I had to make a tackle in order to prevent a shot, but I didn’t even feel the contact. He went down injured and was carried off, but no one knew what was wrong"
... till a teammate told him during the half-time break - "Did you hear about him? They are saying it is serious."
After the match, reporters wanted words with Ertek - and he realised it wasn't because they'd seen the next Marcel Desailly in him.
But it was only when he got back home that the full extent of the nightmare that had befallen him really struck home.
Selvinaz, Ertek's wife, put into words the terror they underwent after that as calls started coming in from the other side of the planet... "We didn’t answer. We saw the calls came from Colombia. They were late calls, after midnight. In the end, we just switched off all the telephones."
"He was being terrorised on the internet. I saw a picture showing Ertek next to an image of Andres Escobar with the words, ‘The most wanted man in Colombia’. I was shocked and afraid. I didn’t show it to him, but I was very worried. I was thinking to myself, ‘Could that happen to him?' "
Why this violent hatred, you ask?
The 2014 World Cup was less than six months away - and Soner Ertek had just taken out Radamel Falcao's knee from under him... tearing the Anterior Cruciate Ligament in his left knee.
Falcao had cried out in pain, and an entire nation mourned - as Colombian daily El Tiempo put it - "as if a curse had befallen us... as if we had challenged divine forces”.
And for good reason... It had been his leadership, his goals, that had led the nation to its first finals appearance since 1998 and they couldn't stomach the fact that their talisman was going to miss the greatest show on Earth - the nation's chance to prove to the world that they had put the narco-fuelled demons of its past to bed - because of what had happened in some pointless match in the backwaters of rural France.
Despite Falcao tweeting immediately that this was all part of the game, and that it wasn't Ertek's fault in any way, things started snowballing to dangerous levels.
“A journalist called and said everything was going crazy in Colombia, that I should ask for police protection," said Ertek. "He was worried more than me. But I said ‘no’, I am determined this hell won’t come back again.”
As terrifying as this new hell was for the journeyman footballer, it was fleeting - James Rodriguez took over the mantle for Los Cafeteros and wowed the nation and the watching world with a golden-boot winning display in Brazil; the pain of Falcao all but forgotten by then - and although he's got a new nickname at new club FC Villefranche (another French alpine village team who ply their trade in the fourth division) one that he doesn't particularly relish, Mr. Falcao - Soner Ertek retreated into the comfort of anonymity soon enough.
For the man he injured, though, for the man whose dream he ended... it was a whole different story.
For Radamel Falcao Garcia Zárate, the Fall was dark, steep... and unforgiving.
“Some say that having football, recognition, and money is all you need to be satisfied. But a lot of people feel empty and have a void in their heart despite their fame and possessions.”
We think of footballers as sheltered beings, closeted within their own little fantastical worlds, protected from the harsh realities of life that you and I live through daily. At times it is true that normal rules of life do not seem to apply to them, but the fact remains that we all forget that these men are... well, just that... mere men whose normality is cloaked by the awe-inspiring aura of celebrityhood... like Falcao put it, possessions and fame aren't everything to a footballer.
The striker had once broken down crying when Spanish TV Show Punto Pelota had shown him images of his childhood, saying “Our world is not real. Football is strange. People don't see the bad times.”
Yet we saw them... we saw just how bad it could be for Radamel Falcao.
For a man who had scored 142 goals in 178 games during his time at Porto and Atletico - and had just begun to find that kind of form at Monaco - his return of 5 goals in 41 matches in England for Manchester United and Chelsea was nothing short of abysmal.
It wasn't just that he wasn't scoring, it was that he didn't even look a shadow of the player whom Pep Guardiola, Fabio Capello, Lionel Messi and a whole host of footballing luminaries had until recently hailed as the best 'pure' striker on the planet.
The spring had gone out of his step, his finishing was letting him down, and try as he might he simply couldn't do the things that had made him such an effective striker in the first place - "Forwards like me act on instinct. There’s no better feeling than getting in front of a defender to make a difference for your team." - he was simply not getting in front of his defender... uppity young lads from Everton and Leicester were bullying him like he was just another amateur flash-in-the-pan mucking it with the big boys in the Premier League.
It felt like the instinct he had spent so many years honing had vanished overnight.
At Manchester United it got so bad that he was asked to play with the reserves... and even there he didn't score. “I read that it was humiliating to put Falcao in the reserves,” said Louis Van Gaal, then manager of United. “But I don’t think so.”
As righteous as the indignation was back in his homeland at the way he was being treated at United, Van Gaal was right... there was very little by way of tangible argument that they could use to justify their stance against Van Gaal. His spell at United was summed by a performance against League One side Preston North End, where he offered no shots on goal - either on or off target. As Martin Keown said, it was "another night of nothing from Falcao"
The love offered to him by the Old Trafford faithful stemmed more from pity than genuine admiration of his footballing abilities; pity for a man who had once been the human embodiment of his nickname, El Tigre; pity that a man whose love for the game was so plainly evident could only offer them night after night of nothing.
Jose Mourinho took him to Chelsea with a promise that he'd reignite the fire, insisting that he was saddened by the fact that the English public thought of this version as the 'real' Falcao - but by the end of his spell there, Falcao had been reduced to nothing much more than a glorified assistant to the then Blues' goalkeeping coach Christophe Lollichon.
"I was grateful because he insisted on doing drills with match intensity even though he knew he would not play," Lollichon told Le Journal Du Dimanche. '"He helped the goalkeepers progress.
He helped the goalkeepers progress.
No surer sign was needed that the already painful feelings of pity his performances invoked in many had melded into cold dismissiveness.
Those two years in England weren't just 'bad times'.
They were hell.
Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vazquez had once written in his magnum opus, 'The Sound of Things Falling', that “The saddest thing that can happen to a person is to find out that their memories are lies.”
For a man who had once claimed that, given a pen and paper, he could draw a diagram of every single goal he'd ever scored... Falcao's memories were fast fading into the realm of 'Was it me who had done all that?'
He had once said that "You have to be as complete as possible, you have to be able to do everything, or you won't score goals.I never think I'm not going to score, I never panic, I never start to worry. I believe I will score. I just know, no matter how long I have to wait, that the goal will come."
And yet, the goal didn't come.
Match after match, opponent after opponent, he waited and waited, but the goals that he'd given so much up for, decided to desert him...it was quite simply heart-breaking to watch.
“I was designed for football"
San Sebastian, 21 October 2012: Real Sociedad vs Atletico Madrid, Gameweek 8, La Liga
Radamel Falcao had bagged 182 goals prior to Atletico's traditionally tough trip to the Anoeta, but not one of them had been a freekick.
He had started his first full professional game at the age of 13 for Lanceros Boyaca in the Colombian League and had spent the formative years of his adulthood plundering all sorts of goals for River Plate, FC Porto, and Atleti... and he really had scored all sorts of them - deft chips, thunderb**tard piledrivers, curlers into the far corner, volleys and half-volleys with the inside of his foot and the outside, headers both subtle and powerful... and yet, he hadn't ever scored a freekick.
So when Cristian Rodriguez fouled him deep into injury time with the game still goalless, nobody really expected him to take it... and yet when he grabbed the ball and placed it at the indicated spot, none of his teammates really complained even though they knew just how good a position the setpiece was in, even though they knew that if he missed, Atleti's run of 6 straight wins would end and they'd slip two points behind leaders Barcelona.
Why? Because it was Radamel Falcao, and everything he did was based on cold, inscrutable logic... the kind of logic that had made him the most ruthlessly fearsome goalscorer in a league that included Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi.
Falcao stepped up... and scored.
Of course, he did.
The reason this tale is brought up now is because of just what that goal proved about the Colombian.
Before the 2012/13 season began, Falcao had admitted that free-kicks had been a particularly glaring weakness in his arsenal, and he'd been working at it for some time now.
You see, that goal - just as the 182 he scored previously and the 73 he's scored since - was a product of his borderline-fanatical dedication to the game, a product of a childhood forsaken for countless hours spent honing his skills, a product of the cast iron ambition that made him who he is.
A member of the Atleti coaching staff gave El Pais a rare insight into the Colombian's psyche: "On the morning of the game, he's friendly, open. At lunchtime, you can see he's concentrating that bit more. And by the time you leave the hotel for the ground, he's completely different. The contrast is huge. He leaves the dressing room last. And if you see his face at that point, he's no longer Falcao; he's The Tiger. His only thought is the ball."
Those two years in England would have broken a normal human being. But Falcao didn't become Falcao by being normal.
Although it was the part about improving goalkeepers that hurt so much in the Lollichon quote, it is the bit about him insisting on match intensity in training that is really relevant - Falcao may have been, in his own words, "built for football" but the fact that he was so good was not down to an accident of birth, or few lucky genes... it was all him and the sheer dint of hard work he put in.
So when he returned after those hellish loan spells to the far more relaxed environs of Monaco he kept training like he always had - "Your intensity in training is crucial to improving. It trains your body for what to expect in a game" - and was given the time to settle in by a manager who fully understood just what he needed - “It was only a question of getting confidence back and feeling like an important part of the team.”
His "heart had been destroyed" when he missed the World Cup in 2014 - a decision he took upon himself after Jose Pekerman had included him in the provisional squad, insisting that a fully fit player should take his place to maximise Colombia's chances - and his soul had been ripped apart in England but he had never once backed down from doing what was needed.
Last year, the rising stars of Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar, and Tiemoue Bakayoko stole the limelight, but he was content to remain in the shadows. While quietly going about his business, doing what he has always done best... scoring goals.
And boy, did he score a lot of them.
We may all remember Monaco's scintillating 2016/17 season, the year they finally managed to topple over the Goliath that is Paris Saint-Germain, as the year of Kylian Mbappe... But it was Falcao who bagged 30 goals in 46 games, including a particularly sumptuous chip away at Manchester City... It was Falcao who top-scored for the highest scoring team in Europe for 2016/17.
This time around he has scored 9 goals in 8 matches; from just 10 shots on target - El Tigre may be old and a touch less aggressive now, but life's experiences have simply made him wiser, smarter, more effective than ever... and even more frightening.
Hell, no one has scored more goals this season than the Colombian and yet you won't hear a peep about him, or from him.
He doesn't seek the spotlight, he doesn't give a damn if people think of him as the star... that was always a defining, popular, characteristic of the man - it's not often that someone who scores so many goals remains ever so humble, and it played a large role in why so many people felt Falcao's fall from grace so deeply - and he doesn't care if the press is talking about Mbappe propelling Monaco to great heights, or Lemar being the creative force behind the Principality's success.
Whatever happens around him, he will train, he will step onto the pitch, and he will score.
A couple of weeks ago, against Brazil, he produced the most beautifully poetic, most Falcao-esque markers of proving that he had successfully clawed his way, bit by agonising bit, out of the depths he had been plunged into... He had well and truly risen from hell -
- it was his first goal for Colombia in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign and ensured that Los Cafeteros remained in a position of advantage in the planet's toughest qualifying zone.
The story of Radamel Falcao's resurrection lends itself to one of the oldest 'morals-of-the-story' around... keep your head down, work hard, never give up - and you will get what you deserve.
Sure, it's a touch too simplistic, a touch too cliched, but when in doubt, remember what Falcao said of his time in 'hell' - "Everything in life is a lesson and one can take advantage of this if they can find something in every situation. These type of adverse experiences teach you and I tried to learn; to assimilate as much as possible, and to put into practice as much as possible. For me, it was like this: I didn’t let that moment pass without gaining something for my life.”
Thank you for proving that Karma isn't the bitch, it's the lack of effort that is.Published 18 Sep 2017, 20:47 IST