That's what we called him. It was 1998, I was 8, going on 9, and this Valderrama was an omnipresent fixture in my life at that juncture.
He was an administrator at the school I attended -- the strict, no-nonsense, let's-scare-the-bejeesus-out-of-little-children kind -- and memory probably gives him a slightly meaner perma-expression than the one he really had, but what I remember distinctly is that he had the greatest mop of hair on his head that I've ever seen in person.
His real name was Aiyyappan, I think. I can't confirm it because, for us, that detail held little import. You see, after a month spent staying up late at night in front of those big ol' Television sets with the grainy footage and the plastic-wrapped remotes -- having used our fathers and uncles to win arguments with our mothers over bedtimes and TV curfews -- and having had breakfasts listening to the radio recall everything we'd seen in our state of semi-stupor the previous night, he reminded us of just one person.
The captain of the Colombian national football team.
We didn't know where Carlos Valderrama played his club football, or how old he was, or what his goals-per-game ratio was, but we loved the way he jogged around the pitch, and we loved his bright gold mop of hair.
15,938 kilometres separated our homelands but the magic of the World Cup made him as real for us as he was for his compatriots. We knew Valderrama.
Looking back at it, I marvel at the madness of it all.
Even allowing for the fact that the sample I have to work with -- a bunch of five or six of us -- were more football mad than your average 9-year-old Indian kid, it's telling that my small southern Indian town of Thrissur was as obsessed with the World Cup as any of the cities in the participating nations. Wherever you went, there was no escaping it. The local newspapers had their back pages, and at times the front ones, filled with the exploits of these strange heroes who did magical things with the ball at their feet. Only one TV channel seemed to matter -- the one showing the games.
Everyone had an expert opinion -- whether it was your uncle disgustedly muttering about Ronaldo's 'illness' in the final or the bus conductor unable to hide his anger at Ariel Ortega for his moment of madness in the quarters -- everyone felt a personal connection with something happening half a world away, involving countries none of them gave a damn about otherwise.
For all the controversy it courts, for all the corporate hullabaloo that it surrounds itself with, at times for all its best efforts to not do so... FIFA does get one thing right. This. The World Cup.
No other sporting event puts the 'World' in 'World Cup' quite like this one. From Thrissur to Timbuktu, when the World Cup is on, nothing else seems to be important. It is, as Ricky Martin so famously crooned, the Cup of Life.
For generations, the quadrennial tournament has captivated the imagination. Grown men are moved to tears at the mere mention of Dr. Socrates and his '82 Brazilians. Wizened ol' veterans still talk about how you experience, and not simply 'watch', Diego Maradona play football. Each era has its own distinct connect with the Cup -- for mine, it was Ronaldo.
No, not him. The Ronaldo. The Original. O Fenomeno.
I remember Valderrama and his glorious hair, Ariel Ortega and his loco ways, Zinedine Zidane's headers, I remember thinking no one could possibly be cooler than Roberto Baggio and, strangely, Paolo Maldini -- but what I most distinctly recollect is that the sight of Brazil's no.9 gave me a rush of visceral thrill that has remained unmatched to this day.
Perhaps it's the slight exaggerations that always accompany formative memories, but I've never seen anyone do the kind of things I remember Ronaldo doing on a football pitch -- the sight of him dragging along a hapless Dutch defender as he bore down on goal (for long I thought it was Jaap Stam, another hero, but YouTube has since corrected me - it was Phillip Cocu) in a show of unbridled power is burned into the deepest recesses of my conscious, forming an untouchable benchmark. The word may be overused these days, but by god, was he awesome.
For others, slightly younger - or introduced to the game a little later - it's the Ronaldo of '02, the one with the mad triangle haircut and the toe-poked finishes, or the little one, '-inho'... Ronaldinho and his glorious freekick, the sight of David Seaman looking he'd seen proof of alien life leaving us gurgling with guilty pleasure. For the next generations, it's Torsten Frings absolutely hammering in the opener in '06, Andres Iniesta remembering his best friend in '10 with the last goal of the tournament, James Rodriguez -- all Hollywood good looks and Real Madrid seducing audacity -- bursting into our collective conscious in '14.
Whatever it is that made you fall for this game, the first time will never really leave you... and every subsequent edition will lure you in deeper and deeper. Various iterations of EA's FIFA, and Konami's PES, along with the wonder of YouTube may have taken away from the mystery and aided in the rise of a particularly irritating brand of cynical 'expert', but there still remains an element that's unique to the World Cup -- a magic that you can't really describe, a personal connection you feel that words do little justice in describing.
There's something that's essentially pure about the football at a World Cup.
For a month Club tribalism is left at the wayside (by most of us), teams from countries you can't locate on a map are adopted as our own (for those on some rather high horses, you can support your nation's struggling team - and another one that plays in World Cups regularly - with equal passion. There's nothing wrong in that) , and your entire life seems to orient itself around the Cup.
Even at a time of powerful villainisation (or blatant propaganda -- whichever you choose to believe), this holds true.
This edition has raised the question of morality like none other and as forced as you think it may be, we must not shy away from discussing it. In an age of unprecedented openness and communication, every avenue must be explored to talk about -- and bring solutions to correct -- such issues.
It is never just about the game. In '62 it was about General Pinochet. In '78, the Argentine military junta, in '94 the might of the free world (3 years after the Gulf War). This year, we must question Russia about the various crimes it's been accused of (the illegal invasion of Ukraine, the detention of political prisoners in Siberia, the support of Bashar Al-Assad, the racism) - as we should the United States in the build-up to their co-hosting the event in 2026 (the illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the detention of political prisoners in Gitmo, the support of ISIS, the racism).
But at the end of the day, none of this negativity should let us detract from the most fundamental aspect of this tournament... that there really is no greater sporting event on the planet. For all the joy it has given us, la Copa Mundial deserves that much.
And in that spirit... here's to a month of joyous madness.
Here's to Spain powering through the chaos and into the light. Here's to Iceland and Panama working miracles. Here's to Egypt and Colombia easing a nation's pains through the simple act of kicking a ball. Here's to Brazil remembering who they really are. Here's to France rising above the divisions that always seem to plague them. Here's to Belgium making the most of their Golden Generation. Here's to England getting over the disappointments of theirs. Here's to Germany Germany-ing the whole shindig.
Here's to Neymar, or Cristiano Ronaldo, or Lionel Messi -- or Kylian Mbappe -- leaving an indelible memory in the minds of a 9-year-old in a small town half a world away.
Here's to the World Cup.
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