Over the last decade or so in world football, the consolidation at the top of the game has brought arguments about the best players and the best clubs closer together.
The Messi vs Ronaldo debate was often used as a proxy for Barcelona v Real Madrid, at a time when it felt like the two clubs were more at risk from one another than from anyone else in the business, but the movement of both players this summer has reintroduced another debate: can they carry a different club to glory, at a time where they are still among the best around but not at their personal peaks.
However, the draw for this season’s Champions League has brought a reminder of another star of that period: Atletico Madrid and Porto are facing off in Group B, and the presence of the two European stalwarts immediately brings to mind one goalscoring machine: Radamel Falcao.
Falcao’s path to Europe wasn’t the kind you’d expect from a highly-rated South American player today. Neymar was 21 when he moved to Barcelona, and that felt relatively late. Vinicius Junior joined Real Madrid at 18; Paulo Dybala was the same age when he joined Palermo; James Rodríguez was a few days shy of his 19th birthday when he switched from Banfield to Porto in 2010.
Not only was Falcao notably older - 23 years old when he left River Plate for the Dragão - but he was further into his career: the Colombian had joined River as a 15-year-old starlet, playing more than 100 times for the Argentine club in an era which also saw the likes of Javier Mascherano and Marcelo Gallardo don their famous red and white shirt, and scored his first international goal a full two years before moving to Portugal.
This isn’t usually the path chosen by an elite striker. However, for a little while, few could claim to be better at what he did. Any concern about a slow start was banished by a 34-goal first season, and he went even better with the assistance of compatriot James Rodriguez in his sophomore year.
As Porto marched closer to the final of the Europa League, Falcao was unplayable. 10 goals across the quarters, semis and final (including the winner in the latter) is simply something no player is supposed to be able to do, however good they are. Sure, it wasn’t the Champions League, but 17 goals in one European campaign is the kind of thing to send shivers down the spine of any defender. The number almost feels comedically large - the joint-top scorers in the 2020/21 edition finished on seven goals, while only five players have even hit double figures in any of the ten editions since.
One of those five? Falcao himself, ensuring he occupies the top two spots since the competition rebranded from the UEFA Cup in 2009.
Drop a GIF 📱👇 to react to this @FALCAO hat-trick from 2012!@atletienglish | #SuperCup pic.twitter.com/lcrPC1jigcSeptember 23, 2020
Turning up to a game against Porto in that period was akin to going 12 rounds with a bear. You could postpone the inevitable, or get lucky once or twice with some errant finishing, but the end result was a done deal before you even stepped onto the pitch.
There are certain things you expect from certain players. Ronaldo will get one chance from inside the box and not need a second. Neymar will produce moments which make you regret choosing to take up defending as a profession. Messi will ruin you purely by ensuring you never know what he will do to you and when. However, if those three men have spent time as football’s private jets, Falcao was the high-speed train capable of razing all in its path, as quickly as possible, before the form became comparatively obsolete.
What’s perhaps more telling about Falcao’s pathway, though, is the way in which he kept his momentum going in Spain during the early part of Diego Simeone’s tenure. The 2012 Super Cup was a stand-out game, if not necessarily the standout, as he scored a hat-trick inside 45 minutes to take down Champions League holders Chelsea.
Simeone teams have been able to blow away their opposition on occasion since, but not this kind of opposition. In 2021, if you’re not one of the super-clubs, containment is often the key to success, even with a prolific scorer on your books. Back then, though, it was still possible for someone like Falcao to put entire teams to the sword.
There was almost a sense in those early European years that Falcao knew his time being that important at that level was limited. As if he could see what was around the corner on a micro and a macro level.
There were big moments in the later years, most notably in Monaco’s run to the 2016/17 Champions League semi-finals, but even by then he was part of a unit - scoring just three knockout goals - rather than the kind of threat who could take the reins more or less on his own.
As two of his former clubs prepare to face off in the Spanish capital, a now-35-year-old Falcao will be watching from the near distance as he prepares to wind down his career at Rayo Vallecano.
The geographical separation is small enough to remind him of those golden years, but football is only getting further and further from an era in which a player like him was allowed to be at his best.
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