At first glance Radamel Falcao seems the typical soccer superstar; he is blessed with Hollywood good looks, has a pop-star wife and sacks of medals. His prolific scoring has earned him the love of fans at both Atletico Madrid and his nation of Colombia. He even boasts a fearsome nickname: “El Tigre.”
But Falcao is not your average football player. He did not meet his wife Lorelei Tarón backstage at a gig, but at church in Buenos Aires when both were teenagers. He was there having left home in Bogotá to join River Plate at 15-years-old. He lived in a hostel near the training ground, studied journalism in his spare time, and suffered from bouts of homesickness.
By his late teens he had emerged as a key player at River, only to see his development stalled by a serious knee injury. It was not until 2009, at the relatively late age of 23, that he moved to Europe, joining Portuguese side Porto for $7.2 million.
The floodgates opened. Falcao racked up 71 goals in two seasons at Porto, including a record breaking 18 in 16 games to lead then-manager André Villas-Boas’ side to the 2011 Europa League title. A big money transfer to Atletico, said to be some $52 million, followed. The sky seemed to be the limit.
But Falcao struggled to settle, and Atletico’s fans whistled and jeered the Colombian during his first months in La Liga. The humble frontman seemed to lack confidence in his own ability. Where was the killer instinct which characterizes a Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?
It took a coach to change that. Diego Simeone already knew Falcao from their time together at River. The tough Argentine brought backbone to the Atlético side, and set the team up specifically to provide chances for its center forward. Falcao responded with 36 goals, including a clinically taken double to clinch a second consecutive Europa League winners’ medal.
This season has started even better for Falcao: first there was a quick-fire hat-trick in August’s European Supercup win over Champions League holders Chelsea, then a phenomenal run of scoring in 11 consecutive games. Just last weekend, the Colombian bagged an astonishing five goals in a 6-0 mauling of Deportivo la Coruna.
Few Atletico fans care to remember last fall’s whistles now. There was even surprise in Madrid when Euro 2012 winner Andrés Iniesta was rated above the Colombian for a place on the 2012 Ballon d’Or podium.
Simeone, who comes across as a father figure for the striker, puts such success down to simple hard work, revealing recently how Falcao had flown back early from international duty, driving straight from the airport to attend training with his colleagues.
"Everything that is happening to Radamel is a consequence of what he gives to football, of his hard work,” Simeone said. "His biggest strengths are his character and his desire."
Teammates also appreciate this commitment. Atlético defender Juanfran Torres praised Falcao’s work ethic during a recent interview with Spanish radio this week. "He is a great professional and a great person," said Torres. "We are very happy for him.”
Even rivals rarely have a bad word to say about the Colombian. “I get the feeling he is a high class person,” Jose Mourinho, boss of city rivals Real Madrid, said in October.
Now 26, Falcao is reaching his prime, and it seems unlikely that heavily indebted Atlético, can keep him much longer. Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea have generally been seen as his most likely destination, if not during January’s transfer window, then next summer.
A new contender emerged this week, when Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez was conveniently seated alongside Falcao and his agent Jorge Mendes at an awards gala. Pérez took advantage to joke publicly about passing Falcao a secret message written on a napkin, recalling a similar incident in 2001 when Zinedine Zidane was persuaded to sign from Juventus. With Ronaldo still reportedly “unhappy” with his current salary at Madrid, a new, less troublesome "galatico," could be required at the Bernabéu.
Falcao seemed blissfully unaware of the Zidane allusion. After posing sweetly with Lorelei for the cameras, he was as usual polite but non-committal when asked about his future career plans.
“I hope to leave my mark on La Liga and Atletico, because it is a very big and important club,” he said. “I still have a lot of challenges in front of me. I am enjoying the present. I have three more years at Atlético.”
If that comment left plenty for interpretation, Falcao’s next challenge is clear. Second-placed Atlético travel to Barcelona on Sunday evening, looking to prove they are viable challengers for this season’s La Liga title. Outshine Messi at the Camp Nou, and the battle for his signature between Abramovich and Pérez will grow even more intense.
Mild-mannered for a tiger he may be, but nobody now doubts the sharpness of Falcao’s claws.