SANTIAGO, Chile – Just before halftime in Colombia’s win over Brazil on Wednesday, Radamel Falcao was presented with the ball just inside the Brazil half. He surged forward with the defense backpedalling. He had James Rodriguez to his left and Juan Cuadrado to his right. This, it seemed, was the perfect opportunity for Colombia to go 2-0 up. Falcao slowed, checked and then, with two passing options, hit a shot from well outside the box. It flew well over the bar.
It was the effort of a player desperately short of confidence, a player who feels the need to validate his existence with a goal. To call him selfish is to miss the point: he is rather a player who is not thinking, a player who has lost the incisiveness of thought that makes the greats great. Falcao in that situation did not have the clarity of thought to decide, almost instantaneously, to assess the most productive option. Rather, or at least this is how it appeared, his brain clouded, and he ended up grabbing after the option that might have, for a time at least, quieted the constant background hum of doubt.
The questions are pertinent enough. This is not the Falcao who scored nine goals in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. The acceleration isn’t there any more. The broad frame that was once such an asset, enabling him to shrug off defenders, now makes him look cumbersome. He looks, in truth, an old player, somebody coming to the end of his effective playing life. He is only 29, but given he made his debut at 13, it’s perhaps not surprising that he looks an old 29–16 years of professional football take their toll. The problems of Manchester United this season have not magically gone away just because he is now wearing a yellow shirt.
“I saw him at the same level as his teammates,” Colombia’s coach Jose Pekerman said after the game. “Little by little I think Falcao is getting back to his best. It’s a matter of time but he is improving. Today he had a chance to score and I believe that when he does score you will value what he does. Therefore I always say that there are two positions in football that require something special: the goalkeeper and the goalscorer, and they are hard to assess.”
Although he has been evasive on the issue, Pekerman clearly doesn’t believe Falcao can play as a lone frontman, which creates an immediate issue. At the World Cup, when Falcao was absent with a knee injury, Colombia tended to play with a single striker and a fluent 4-2-3-1 system with Teo Gutierrez that allowed James Rodriguez great freedom. That has gone now with Falcao back in the side.
It’s true that he showed glimmers of returning to form in the build-up to the tournament. A run of five goals in five games made him his country’s leading all-time goalscorer. But in the opening game against Venezuela, all the old issues resurfaced. Worse, because Pekerman went with a 4-4-2, using Carlos Bacca, who finished the season in tremendous form for Sevilla, alongside Falcao, the system became blockish and Rodriguez found himself restricted. Only when Gutierrez, a player who does naturally drop off, came on for Bacca did Los Cafeteros find any kind of fluency.
Not surprisingly, Gutierrez started instead of Bacca against Brazil. There was always going to be more space for Colombia in that game, given Brazil’s greater attacking intent, but the difference Gutierrez made was startling. Nonetheless, it felt like Colombia was succeeding despite Falcao rather than because of him.
There was another moment in the first half when Gutierrez backheeled a cross from Rodriguez into the path of Falcao. It was a brilliant piece of improvisation, creating a difficult opportunity; had Falcao scored it would have been a truly stunning goal. So there’s not great shame in the fact he didn’t, except that his effort was an awful shank, flying so far wide off the outside of his shin that it almost went out for a throw-in.
Colombia still needs to win its third game, against a Peru side that performed far better than expected against Brazil, to be sure of making it through. With Bacca suspended after being sent off for shoving Neymar after the final whistle, Falcao will almost certainly start. But the fact Falcao was taken off midway through the second half for Victor Ibarba, and the system changed to 4-2-3-1, suggests Pekerman is at least toying with going back to the system he used at the World Cup.
Falcao is Colombia’s greatest player of the last decade, and it may be that he recovers from injury to become again the player he was. The danger at the moment is that the process of trying to rediscover that form prevents Colombia making the best possible stab at winning the competition.