Radamel "The Tiger" Falcao emerges as a ferocious scorer
Gonzalo Ludueña started it and now there's no stopping it. Gonzalo was fourteen at the time. He played in the youth team at River Plate in Argentina and shared a dormitory with a handful of other players at the club's residency. One day one of them scored twice in a game against Huracán and was awarded the Man of the Match Award, sponsored by the petrol company Esso whose adverts famously involved a prowling Tiger and whose slogan ran:
Rather than call it the Man of the Match award, they called it the Tigre Esso - the Esso Tiger - and they handed it over to the goalscorer: a quiet Colombian kid called Radamel Falcao García Zárate. Gonzalo spent the next days, weeks and months winding him up about it.
Over a decade later, he still is. The name stuck. Now everyone knows Atlético Madrid striker Radamel Falcao as The Tiger. A 250kg Bengal tiger and a 70kg Siberian tiger cub have been to the Vicente Calderón stadium to meet him; he conducted one recent TV interview sitting on a bench in north-eastern Madrid with cuddly tiger sitting alongside him; and now Atlético Madrid have put together a publicity video, declaring the Calderón the Tiger's Home.
Set to Chiana Mastronianni's cover of Eye of the Tiger, the video shows the streets around the stadium. Down Paseo de los Melancólicos, past the bars that dot the route to the stadium, along the bridge that crosses the Manzanares river and the M30 motorway, the road signs have been altered. They have become warning signs: the face of a tiger in a red triangle, with the notice "on match days" underneath. There is a tiger on the loose. And he seems to be everywhere.
"I should get a cut," joked Ludueña in an interview with the newspaper AS.
The nickname is appropriate. For all that it is a cliché, there really is something tiger-like about the way that Falcao plays; something predatory, something ruthlessly efficient. Strikers are often described as hunters. With Falcao, it makes sense.
A combination of nature and nurture, he has perfected his routine. Obsessed with the game, the son of a defender, he has worked hard at it. He has listened and learnt and made sacrifices. Shown images of his childhood during an interview with the Spanish TV programme Punto Pelota recently, the emotion got the better of him and he started to cry. "Our world is not real," he said, "football is strange. People don't see the bad times." He rarely went out and had just two obsessions: football and religion.
Ludueña recalls hiding from him on Sunday because Falcao would try to make him go to church - and frankly that's the last thing most young lads wants to do.
There is nothing remotely pretentious about him; his game is as simple, as straight, as he is. Meet him and there is a small glimpse of what makes him good, so effective. He is powerful but not excessively big, not an inch of fat on him, and there's a quiet control about him. He is rational, steady, clear-sighted and so is his game. Few players are as effective.
This season he has had the third most shots on target in the Spanish league but when it comes to shots off target his is only seventeenth; there is precious little waste. Messi has scored 13 with 51 shots, Ronaldo 11 with 61. Falcao's 10 have come in only 31 shots. This isn't a man endlessly firing the trigger in the hope of getting lucky.
Watch him play closely and it is fascinating. The power and aggression stands out of course but above all the intelligence is what strikes you. The way he moves, the way he waits for his opportunity. The focus. The - and here comes that cliché again - eye of the tiger. There are times during games when he appears not to be interested but it is not disinterest, it is stalk. He will drift out of the line of vision of the defender, slink away, slip into space, always wondering And then, suddenly, when the ball is there, he pounces. It can be startlingly sudden: a sprint, a leap, and ... goal!
When he does move in for the kill, he has an astonishing array of skills with which to finish off the chances. At 5ft 10in, he is not tall either and yet only two players have had more headers on goal than him in Spain this season. He can finish with power or precision or both, he can finish with both feet. Most of the time he finishes with a single touch, but he can control, cut back, stop, turn, and finish. Witness the quality of finishing in last year's Europa League final or against Chelsea in the European Super Cup.
A fortnight ago he even scored his first ever free kick. Typically, he revealed afterwards that he had been working on it for weeks, quietly perfecting his routine.
Falcao has won two Europa League titles in a row, finishing as top scorer both times, and destroyed Chelsea with a hat-trick in barely half an hour in the European Super Cup. He scored 72 in 87 games for Porto, after leaving Argentina for Europe, and 36 in 50 games in his first season in Spain with Atlético. He has always been an impressive striker; now, he is getting even better, arguably the best out and out striker in the world, a man whose buyout clause does not so much scare off suitors, as is normally the case, as encourage them. Even though it stands at 60m Euros.
As preferences shift, those qualities have helped to make him a candidate for the Balón d'Or. Not to win it - it's hard to see beyond Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - but quite possibly to finish on the podium. He has scored 41 times in 2012 and right now, it can feel like he is unstoppable: Falcao has scored in every game he has played since August 24, finding the net seventeen times in his last eleven games: thirteen for Atlético, plus four playing with Colombia.
Atlético Madrid fear they will lose him before long. In fact, they know it. "If someone pays his buy out clause, he needn't even worry about saying goodbye," admitted the club's president Enrique Cerezo. But for now, they are the beneficiaries. Falcao's goals won the Europa League and Super Cups and have been directly responsible for ten points this season. Atlético are level at the top of the Spanish table with Barcelona, eight points ahead of rivals Real Madrid, and they have gone 23 games unbeaten - the longest run in their entire history. No wonder Europe's biggest clubs are being drawn in.