“Independent of the mistake, he’s brilliant — fundamental and decisive.”
He’d said pretty much the exact words a month previous, in the heat of Naples, where he backed his goalkeeper, René Higuita, after the error that would become one of the iconic vignettes in World Cup history. Positioned a lot closer to the halfway line than his own goal, Higuita attempted to remedy an imperfect first touch by dragging the ball away from the incoming Roger Milla with his studs. Milla stole the ball and raced away towards the empty goal, then to the corner flag. He just about managed a brief wiggle of those hips before being mobbed by ecstatic Cameroon teammates.
The goal sealed Colombia’s exit, but head coach Francisco Maturana was phlegmatic. After all, it was the first World Cup Colombia had qualified for since 1962 and the furthest the team had ever progressed. They were a goal down, deep into extra-time, and Higuita was being aggressive — as Maturana had always asked him to be. The pair had conquered a continent together; Maturana wasn’t about to abandon him now.
Quite the opposite. Now stood in the calmer environs of an empty José Zorrilla stadium discussing his new project as manager of Real Valladolid, Maturana openly told reporters that negotiations to sign Higuita were ongoing and that he saw him as a fundamental part of his plans.
It would take a year for Higuita to finally sign — only one of Maturana’s targets, midfielder Leonel Álvarez, was available immediately — but Higuita would arrive alongside the most famous Colombian footballer of all. Carlos Valderrama tempted across the Pyrenees to join the Colombian colony in Castile and León after three years in Montpellier.
The four Colombians’ arrival was part of an ambitious new president’s plan to propel a useful Valladolid side to European level. It would, though, be a gamble that quickly unravelled, leaving behind a club in relegation trouble and one of the most indelibly odd images in Spanish football history.
Serious, orderly and conservative: Maturana’s new home city of Valladolid stood in sharp contrast to the sprawling tropical mayhem of his native Medellín. There, Maturana had gone to secondary school with a certain Pablo Escobar but chose the more conventional career path of dentistry. He would see patients at his surgery in the afternoons, leaving mornings free to train with Colombia’s biggest club, Atlético Nacional, for whom he played a decade in defence for.
That ability to combine two jobs would come in useful as Maturana progressed into football management. After just one season in charge of Once Caldas, Maturana was appointed as head coach of the Colombian national team in the summer of 1987. Remarkably, he was soon courted by Nacional and ran the two roles alongside each other — basing the national side on the nucleus of his club squad.
It was seen as a controversial design, but one that was soon paying dividends. In May of 1989, Nacional became the first Colombian side to win the Copa Libertadores. Five months later, seven of that side featured for Colombia in a World Cup qualification play-off win over Israel that returned Colombia to football’s biggest stage after an absence of nearly three decades.
Progress through the knockout stage of Italia ’90 pushed Maturana’s stock higher. Still, he wasn’t an obvious choice for a European side to appoint. The obvious, though, was not something that regularly concerned Valladolid’s president-elect Gonzalo Gonzalo, a man who had made his money by marketing lighting solutions in countries like the USSR — markets that no regular Spanish business executive would consider viable. Gonzalo saw Maturana as a coach on the rise and moved quickly to bring him to Valladolid.
Gonzalo was also the owner of the city’s basketball team and had swiftly elevated them from mid-ranking plodders to European contenders. A pair of Lithuanian signings had been the key. No sooner had Arvydas Sabonis and Valdemaras Chomicius set foot off the plane from Vilnius than they were averaging over 40 points per game together as the side rose up the rankings.
It was perhaps that concept of importing a bloc of players that drove the arrival of Valladolid’s Colombians. The squad that Gonzalo and Maturana inherited was a reasonably talented one. Despite Fernando Hierro’s departure for Real Madrid, a young José Luis Caminero was attracting attention from bigger clubs while Gregorio Fonseca and Onésimo Sánchez formed a decent strike partnership. Maturana instantly added Álvarez, the general of his Nacional and Colombia midfield — with the longer-term intention of bringing in more of his compatriots.
Maturana’s first season saw Valladolid comfortably cruising in mid-table. By spring, Maturana had attracted the attention of Real Madrid, who were off the pace in the league and cycling through managers. A pre-contract was signed for Maturana to become the new Madrid head coach the following season. But Radomir Antić revived the side, rattling off eight wins from nine, including victories over Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, which bought the Serb a further season in charge. Maturana’s agreement was quietly filed away in an office drawer.
Unperturbed, Maturana looked ahead to the 1991-92 season, driving on his project at Valladolid. Prising Higuita away from Nacional had again become a convoluted process, but there were no such problems in tempting the other face of Colombia’s World Cup campaign. So keen, in fact, was Valderrama to join up with Maturana, he left Colombia’s preparations for the upcoming Copa America to fly to Spain to complete the deal.
Valderrama was the picture of relaxed, Santa Marta beach cool as his beaded wrists jangled to join a three-way handshake with Maturana and Gonzalo for the benefit of the cameras. But the smiles betrayed the storm that was blowing up back in Colombia. Valderrama’s unauthorised departure from camp had infuriated the Colombian Federation president, León Londono, who threatened to throw his captain out of the squad. It took a phone call from Maturana to defuse the situation — calmly talking his old boss down: “I just explained to him that suspending Carlos made no sense, and the country wouldn’t stand for it.”
Higuita finally set foot in Valladolid just as the pre-season was ending. Although he’d been reluctant to move from Nacional and his home city of Medellín, his eventual transfer proved something of a relief, as Higuita had caused a scandal in Colombia by paying a visit to his new manager’s old classmate, Escobar, in prison. The goalkeeper gave his new public an instant showreel of what to expect. In a friendly at home to the Brazilian side Internacional, Higuita was at fault for two goals and escaped a red card for dragging an opponent down in midfield. Though in typical fashion, in the resultant shoot-out he saved two penalties before converting the decisive kick himself.
As a club, Real Valladolid habitually flew under the radar, but the signing of the three Colombians had attracted a buzz around Spain as the season got underway. Moustachioed and corkscrew-haired, the trio made for an exotic sight as they posed for photographers alongside the manager they were excited to play for once more.
Valladolid’s only other permitted overseas player, veteran goalkeeper Mauro Ravnić, was certainly not seen as glamorous enough to ask along to a photoshoot. The Croatian had agreed to stay on as a backup after the previous first-choice, Ángel Lozano, departed for Burgos, irked by the club’s pursuit of Higuita.
Remarkably, by January, Ravnić was the only foreign player that remained at the club. A tumultuous few months had seen his Colombian colleagues depart for home, while speculation around Maturana had long since switched from who was attempting to poach him to when he would get sacked.
For all the optimism, Valladolid made a disjointed start to the season at home to Sporting Gijón. A good first half gave way to a nervous second, particularly after a Sporting free-kick squirmed through the defensive wall, leaving Higuita scrambling in vain to keep the ball out. Fans left Zorrilla disgruntled as Maturana’s men failed to react and lumbered to a 0-1 defeat.
Next was a trip to Real Madrid where Valladolid lost by the same scoreline — again to a goal where Higuita was unconvincing. But the performance was transformed, and Valladolid deserved more from a full-blooded contest where Valderrama imperiously pulled the strings. Madrid had to resort to hacking him down and some rather comical time-wasting from Paco Buyo to preserve the scoreline.
But the balance of play nor Valladolid’s domination of midfield was not what featured in the headlines, because as Mundo Deportivo put it: “Michel starred in a porn scene that will go down in the annals of history”. Valderrama and Real Madrid’s Michel had clashed several times throughout the game, and as they awaited a Valladolid corner, they clashed again, with the referee stepping in to restore order. Still intent on provoking his opponent, Michel switched tactics, grabbing Valderrama’s testicles — once almost tentatively, then again much more assiduously. Valderrama stood hands on hips, bewildered, quickly glancing downward to check that what he felt was happening really was happening.
The clarity of the pictures caught by cameras, the high profile of the two players and the sheer oddity of it all were a perfect storm, and the incident became a sensation that was talked about for weeks on end. Initial reaction centred around Valladolid’s call for disciplinary action and Michel’s attempts to brush the episode off: “It was just a joke. One of those things that happen in football that people don’t understand.”
Unable to see the funny side was José Javier Forcén, of the Competition and Discipline Committee. He handed Michel a 500,000 peseta (€3,000) fine for a ‘lack of decorum’, namely: “manipulating in public the gift that is exclusively given to males by nature.”
Valladolid’s improved showing at the Bernabéu proved to be something of a mirage and it took the side until October to register their first win. The mood was also growing sombre off the pitch, as an astonishing debt of 700 million pesetas (€4.2m) owed by tax authorities became public knowledge. It seemed that while the board had spent the summer negotiating the signings of some of the most glamorous players in world football, those in charge of the numbers had been desperately pleading the tax authorities for a moratorium on their debt just to stay solvent.
Tension transmitted itself to the stands, and Higuita’s alternative take on the goalkeeping position was soon drawing opprobrium. The Zorrilla crowd, tired of basic errors, grew intolerant of Higuita’s sorties downfield or attempts to flick the ball over oncoming forwards’ heads. Higuita began to be jeered whenever he left his box.
A broader debate on his style was taking place. Don Balon magazine ran a survey entitled: “Is Higuita an acceptable goalkeeper for Spanish football?” canvassing opinions from fellow first division goalkeepers and greats such as Luis Arconada. Far from fuelling the debate, the answers were sympathetic, with the goalkeeping fraternity unwilling to criticise the Colombian.
Despite the support, it eventually became too much for Higuita. After another error-strewn display in the final game before the Christmas break, Higuita made straight for the centre circle to wave goodbye to the home fans. In an improvised press conference, he declared he was returning home: “I wish the team all the luck in the world and I hope they can improve without me. It just hasn’t gone how we hoped. My head is just all over the place — the rest of my body too.” And with that, he was gone.
Higuita returned to Nacional — who Valladolid had yet to pay a single peseta of his transfer fee.
The new year brought no respite. Indeed the Colombian project blew up spectacularly during Valladolid’s visit to Barcelona. After 27 minutes, Valderrama fed the ball forward to Álvarez, who was clearly tripped. Valladolid players stopped in anticipation of the free kick, but none was forthcoming. Instead, the ball was whisked downfield, where Michael Laudrup played in Julio Salinas for the opening goal.
Valderrama and Álvarez were incandescent and made their feelings plain to referee Andújar Oliver. But Andújar held a reputation throughout the league of being particularly intolerant of dissent and haughtily produced yellows, then reds for both players.
The image of the pair sitting dejectedly on the floor in front of the Camp Nou dugout would be the last of them in Valladolid colours. Just ten days later, the club announced the receipt of much-needed two bank transfers. A total of $710,000 had arrived from Independiente de Medellín and América de Cali for the transfers of Valderrama and Álvarez respectively.
Maturana limped on without his countrymen. A February victory over Real Madrid was a rare highlight, but in early April, with the club fourth from bottom, Maturana was sacked.
The Colombian experiment was over. But things did not improve for Valladolid, who slipped to joint-bottom of the table and were relegated for the first time in over a decade.
Maturana wasted no time getting back into the swing of things, appointed as manager of América de Cali and immediately winning the title. Colombia called once more, and Maturana was re-appointed as head coach ahead of the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign. The qualifiers were played over an intense one month period. It was a format that seemed to suit Colombia, who hit a strong vein of form and travelled to Buenos Aires for their final game assured of at least a play-off position and needing a draw to seal automatic qualification. After intense Argentine pressure throughout the first half, Freddy Rincón put Colombia ahead just before half-time. Colombia then picked Argentina apart in a scintillating display of precise attacking football, running out 5-0 winners –– a result that went down as the most celebrated in Colombian football history.
While Maturana, Valderrama, and Álvarez were receiving an ovation by the Argentine fans at the Estadio Monumental, fellow Valladolid defector Higuita watched on television from his cell at La Modelo prison in Bogotá. Higuita was being held without bail on charges of kidnapping. His involvement in negotiating the release of a teenage girl had broken Colombia’s strict new anti-kidnapping laws. Higuita claimed he was being punished for the visit he had paid to Escobar and even went on hunger strike to protest his incarceration.
After his eventual release, Higuita was in no shape to make the Colombian squad that travelled to USA ’94 as what many people — including, famously Pelé — considered genuine contenders. But the weight of expectation and a horrifying backdrop of threats made against individual players saw the team eliminated after just two games. The subsequent murder of Andrés Escobar, the defender who had put through his own net in the decisive defeat to the USA, starkly illustrated the malevolent force that drug cartels had become in the country’s football scene.
Drug money had, as in the rest of society, long been a feature of Colombian football, swelling club coffers directly or indirectly, allowing clubs to hold on to talent that usually departed for foreign shores. But after Pablo Escobar’s capture and killing, Colombia became unstable and ever more violent. Something that even the successful national team, which had become the symbol of hope, succumbed to.
Back in Valladolid, the man whose ambition had brought the Colombians together in the northwest of Spain had long since left the presidency. Gonzalo lasted barely as long as his star signings had after the eye-watering level of debt forced him to make way for a new board with a plan to manage the situation.
Some three decades later, only one memory will be conjured up if you mention to any Spanish football fan the Valladolid de los Colombianos. The enduring image of one of Real Madrid’s greatest players grabbing Colombia’s most famous player by the balls.
Ingeniously, in 2017, the magazine, Libero, revisited the incident with Valderrama to highlight the importance of testicular self-examination in the early detection of cancer. Alongside the slowed down footage, Valderrama demonstrates the correct way to inspect for lumps.
“I want to thank you, my dear friend. For touching my balls in three simple steps. Like we all should do to prevent testicular cancer.”
“Gracias, Michel,” he concludes with that famous smile.