Baseball’s loss was definitely football’s gain! In the first instalment of this in-depth, two-part interview, Radamel Falcao discusses his rise to fame, making his senior debut aged 13, moving to River Plate at 15 and his whirlwind success at Porto.
Key moments discussed in this interview1999: Having chosen football over baseball and moved home from Venezuela, Falcao makes his senior debut for second-tier Colombian side Lanceros Boyacá aged 13.2001: Moves to Argentina’s River Plate, earning his senior debut in 2005.2009: Joins Porto and makes his UEFA Champions League debut away to Chelsea. Two weeks later he scores his first European goal against future employers Atlético.2011: Wins the domestic double and the UEFA Europa League, scoring a record 17 goals in that competition, including the final winner against Braga.
UEFA.com: Let’s go back to your childhood in Colombia. Of course, you’re a wonderful player who has won a lot, but I believe you had the chance to choose between baseball and football. Describe that moment.
Radamel Falcao: At the time we were in Venezuela and baseball is the biggest sport there. I played it and was competing at a very high level.
My father realised that I’d have to make a decision and decided that we should go back to Colombia so that I could focus solely on football. It would have been more difficult to do that in Venezuela because I might have been tempted by baseball, which I liked and was able to play at the same time as football.
UEFA.com: Do you think Colombia possibly missed out on a great baseball player because of your decision?
Falcao: I had big potential at the time because I became good at it very quickly and if I’d kept playing, I could’ve gone very far in the sport. But football runs in my blood and I did really want to play football.
UEFA.com: Perhaps the moment that proved you made the right decision to opt for football was when you were 13 and you made your debut for Lanceros. What was it like to get a taste of professional football at that age?
Falcao: I was very young and at the time in Colombia they created a law to incentivise clubs to field younger players. The club I was at, Lanceros, had a lengthy list of injuries and suspensions ruling out all of the regulars. No other players had as much hype surrounding them and they ended up picking me, although I wasn’t expecting it.
It was difficult to keep a lid on the feelings that were running through me at the time. It was very exciting to be able to make my debut alongside accomplished professionals. I don’t think I was ready to cope with all of that and the emotions linked to preparing for a professional football match. I still tried to enjoy myself on the pitch during the brief cameo that I had and I think I put in an acceptable performance. The most important thing was that I really enjoyed it.
Falcao’s outrageous chip against Manchester City
UEFA.com: You ended up at River Plate at a young age. How did you find out and what did you have to think about before deciding to go there?
Falcao: I didn’t take much convincing. At the time, Colombian players started to get transfers to Argentinian clubs like River Plate and they really paved the way for many other Colombians.
Given that I followed the league closely, I decided to go there and when the chance to join River came up, I had no doubts. My mother and father knew it was part of my dream and they supported me from a very young age. They accepted my decision and let me go to Argentina to fulfil my dream.
UEFA.com: Who did your move affect most in the family?
Falcao: Without doubt it was my mother and my two sisters. I have two younger sisters and during those first four years when I was in Argentina, I wasn’t around to see them grow up. It was very hard for all of us because missing out on that period and not seeing them grow up was tough for me.
UEFA.com: How did the footballing culture in Argentina, or even at River Plate, help you develop your talent and mature?
Falcao: River is a fantastic club that goes beyond just football. They offer so many sports and activities within the club. There are schools for young players and its DNA can be identified by every other club in Argentina.
It’s in the DNA of River fans to prefer attractive and technical football with plenty of possession. I noticed that quickly and I was made aware just how important that was to River fans, and so I tried to adapt with my characteristics and ability.
Thank God I was able to settle in quickly, initially in the Under-17s and then in the first team.
UEFA.com: When you made your debut, Gonzalo Higuaín, Javier Mascherano, Marcelo Salas, Lucho González and Marcelo Gallardo were all at the club. You have racked up 380 games in UEFA competitions between you. Describe the characters and the atmosphere in the dressing room, starting with the first team.
Falcao: At the time we had some players at River that would go on to have fantastic careers on the global stage. Being able to make my professional debut and start out alongside players of that ilk was a wonderful experience and helped me develop as a player and also learn in other areas.
I learnt how to conduct myself as a professional and being in the dressing room alongside Gallardo, Marcelo Salas, Lucho González, Mascherano and Ernesto Farías, all of whom were top-class players, was a dream come true for me. I had dreamt of being with and playing alongside them, which I ended up being able to do.
Falcao introduces Monaco’s young stars
UEFA.com: With social media nowadays the world of football is quite small, but I imagine that wasn’t the case when you left for another continent to head to Porto. Did you have time to do some research on the climate, the food and the club?
Falcao: Once I found out Porto were interested in me, I started doing research on the city and the club, which I’d been watching in the Champions League. But aside from what Porto is like as a city, the people and the culture, it was a new experience that I was excited about because I wanted to go to Europe and I think I chose the best option.
The club opened their doors to me and made me progress in all areas. The coach Jesualdo Ferreira taught me so much and the squad was well-equipped. I had to do my job and that was it. Good results came quickly because the goals were flowing and I certainly left my mark during my time at Porto.
My ambition was to join a club that had a very strong backbone, which had been developed over many years, and with players who knew one another inside out and who could each perform their roles perfectly.
As a No9, I simply had to focus on doing what a No9 needs to do, because the ball would come to me from all over the pitch and I had to be fresh to finish off any chances in or around the opposition’s penalty box. That made things much easier for me. The quality of the players was so high and when you’re surrounded by fantastic players, football is much easier.
UEFA.com: You made your UEFA Champions League debut for Porto at Chelsea – but despite your form at the time André Villas-Boas only used you as a substitute that day.
Falcao: I was really emotional; it was like I was making another debut. Indeed, it was my debut in the Champions League. Chelsea had loads of class players back then. It’s true I had been scoring a lot of goals in previous matches, but my coach was both careful and wise to bring me off the bench.
He didn’t want to plunge me straight into the action but instead decided to give me some time to get used to the atmosphere of the Champions League and understand what it was like – its pace and intensity. As a result, when I came on in the second half, I was a bit more aware of the game and I was more useful to the team.
Later, I began to start games and score goals too, against Atlético and APOEL. Eventually we managed to reach the round of 16, where we played Arsenal.
Watch six stunning Falcao strikes
UEFA.com: Let’s talk about your beautiful first goal in the Champions League. You got a wonderful assist from Hulk back then. Tell us a bit more about that fantastic move against Luís Perea, who is a fellow countryman of yours as well. Describe the whole action, including the assist, which led to you scoring that sublime goal.
Falcao: It was my first Champions League match in the starting line-up. We were playing at our home stadium, the Estádio do Dragão. I remember Atlético Madrid’s goalkeeper was Roberto back then, but he got injured and their coach decided to play [David] de Gea, who was 17 at the time. We played the ball over to Hulk on the wing.
He tried to shoot twice and the ball rebounded to him each time. When he realised it wasn’t on anymore, he lifted his head and saw me. I had the goal to my side and it would have been very difficult to shoot that way. The only option was to back-heel it and so I did exactly that when the ball ran past me.
De Gea was already on the move and I managed to beat him. I always joke around with him about that goal: I was the first footballer to score against him in his senior career.
UEFA.com: You must have celebrated a lot when you scored that goal, but can you imagine how hard Colombia fans must have cheered for you when they saw a fellow countryman scoring a goal like that in the Champions League group stage?
Falcao: I think so. It was the first goal I ever scored and it was such a wonderful goal, very difficult, because it came off my heel. Back then, Colombia didn’t have many attacking players or players who had the habit of scoring in the Champions League, so, yes, when I scored that goal there was a small revolution in my country.
UEFA.com: Let’s turn to that fantastic 2010/11 season with Porto. What was the most important moment of that journey to Europa League glory? The hat-trick in Vienna, the hat-trick versus Spartak Moskva, the four goals you scored against Villarreal: looking back at all of those memories, which do you think is the best?
Falcao: Scoring in a final is very special and helping your team to win that final thanks to your goal is even more special and extremely satisfying. I’ll stick to the goal in the Europa League final because it gave us victory and my first European trophy.
In part two of this interview ahead of the second leg against Manchester City, Falcao discusses success at Atlético Madrid and Monaco.
2011 UEFA Europa League final: Falcao heads Porto to glory