Colombia's second division isn't nowhere, but it's next door. It's like most leagues the world over: a small audience, players making peanuts, clubs that are forever a couple bad economic bounces away from dissolving. It's a place from which everyone in it is trying to emerge. You do not settle down in the Torneo Ágblatuila; you plot your next move.
Radamel Falcao made his professional debut in this league. He played for a since-disbanded club called Lanceros Boyacá in his early teens before transferring to River Plate in Argentina. The experience was not altogether formative or long-lasting—he played just eight matches for Lanceros over a year-and-a-half with the team—but it speaks to just how far down the professional ladder a talented kid from Colombia starts. Future Xavis and Iscos toiling in the seventh divisions of regional leagues in Spain are metaphorical light-years from playing even for Deportivo La Coruña, let alone Real Madrid, but they are at least in the literal vicinity of the clubs they aspire to play for, under the eye of local scouts who will, if they excel, usher them into a reputable youth academy. There is a clear path forward, if the skill is there.
Falcao was required to take a thoroughly indirect route to top-level soccer. He played for River Plate's youth setup for nearly four years before breaking into the senior side in 2005. He then spent four more seasons with River, missing seven months of 2006 with ligament damage in his right knee, but otherwise impressing. There were rumored transfer offers from Roma, Aston Villa, and Fluminense. He eventually left for Porto in the summer of 2009, arriving at his first European destination at the age of 23.
Porto's a strange club. They recruit a lot of South American players on the rise—Falcao fit that bill back when—but they never quite have the cash to buy their transfer targets outright, so they purchase a majority of the player's rights instead. What this means is that some 20, 30, 40 percent of many of their players' rights are owned by agents, shady sports investment firms, or rich so-and-sos operating beneath the veneer of a shell company. This has as many bad implications as you can imagine, but in the most practical terms, it means players that filter through Porto (and their Portuguese rivals, Benfica and Sporting) often have subsequent careers that are not entirely their own. They're always being steered by one black hand or another toward a certain destination.
Porto purchased 60 percent of Falcao's rights in 2009. It's not clear whether the other 40 percent was bought up by a third party, or if it merely remained with River Plate. Regardless, Falcao was definitely partially owned by a third party by the time he moved to Atlético Madrid in the summer of 2011, when Doyen Sports Investments funded something like half of his €40 million transfer fee. After two years of proving he was one of the very best number nines in the world with the Spanish capital's second club, there was buzz that Falcao could move to Chelsea, or even across town to Real Madrid. Instead he made a curious exit to nouveau riche Monaco, which provided him with a massive pay raise, but was a step down competitively from Atleti, who went on to win La Liga and finish as runners up in the Champions League the season after he left.
Whether Falcao left for Monaco of his own volition or otherwise remains a mystery, but at any rate, he arrived in the principality in 2013 and played well, if not quite up to the standards he had set for himself at Porto and Atleti, before tearing his left ACL in January of 2014. He missed Colombia's World Cup run, and when Monaco went from nouveau riche to halfway broke, Falcao finally got his chance to play for one of the biggest clubs in world, securing a loan to Manchester United this past summer.
The problem is, the player who gamely carried Atlético to Champions League qualification is gone. Whether it's his damaged joints or simply age catching up to the 29-year-old, Falcao is in a different phase of his career. Surely, he hasn't fallen off the cliff his statistics would suggest—some of his struggles can be chalked up to a United side that lack creativity despite not lacking for talent, since he's the sort of player who finishes goals, not one who creates them for himself—but he has declined in that hard-to-pin-down way players at his position decline. His runs don't create the space they used to; those little touches and feints are a whit less effective than usual. He's laboring to score rather than simply doing it as if it was as natural as rolling out of bed.
This is a damn shame. The characteristic Anglo-chauvinism of the English press is showing, and Falcao is being portrayed as if he was never all that great to begin with, which is preposterous, but he's not exactly shutting the critics up with his play. It's difficult to convince people of what they didn't experience at the time it was happening, but Falcao circa 2010 was about as gifted a goalscorer as existed outside of Messi and Ronaldo. He could find a broom closet's worth of room and curl the ball into the corner; he could fight off a center back and convert with his head; and he simply didn't miss if he was free in the box.
There's buzz Real Madrid might snatch him up, but that possibility feels like typical Galactico blind asset collection—in his current form, Falcao doesn't have a prayer of displacing Karim Benzema—and there's the possibility United might buy him this summer at a number considerably lower than the reported €55 million Monaco want. Falcao isn't cooked, and he might get another season with the spotlight-soaked club, but the sadness of his predicament is rooted in timing, not opportunity.
Soccer players tend to have short shelf lives compared to most athletes, and it seems Falcao, while trying to impress clubs like Real Madrid and Manchester United, gave his best years to Porto and Atleti. He's at the mountaintop now, but feeling more wrung out than he'd like to, and what was supposed to be a culmination has turned into a minor embarrassment. This is not the same thing as coming up short—failure is not the word to use here—but it is still less than Falcao deserves. That circuitous route from Colombian obscurity to Old Trafford was perhaps a bit too winding for his body to take.