It was December 2012, and just over half an hour into a La Liga game between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou, there was a familiar sight.
With the game goalless and Barca on the attack, nine Atletico players were camped behind the ball, creating a solid red-and-white wall that the hosts had to breach.
But then one of those red-and-white shirts—the one belonging to Diego Costa—was suddenly in the face of Lionel Messi. Costa nicked the ball off the Argentinian and played it to his left to Radamel Falcao just inside the Barca half. Six seconds later it was in the back of the home team’s net.
And that’s what the Colombian had given Atletico during what by then had been a year-and-a-half with them.
At his best—and Atletico was where he was at his best—Falcao was a rapier-like goalscoring machine. Give him an inch and he’d fill it, a chance and he’d take it.
He was an assassin, a born goalscorer who with this strike at the Camp Nou had just made it 32 La Liga goals for the calendar year of 2012. Barca’s Luis Suarez has just become only the fifth person to have achieved over 30 in a year this century.
But there’s an argument that this is where the Falcao story reached its peak and the line charting his career began its downward spiral towards where we all know it is today.
A week earlier he had scored five goals in a 6-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna, but after this strike to put Atletico 1-0 up at the Camp Nou, they lost 4-1.
Falcao would score 11 goals in his 19 La Liga appearances in the rest of that season—only OK by his standards—and soon enough agent Jorge Mendes whisked him away to Monaco in the summer of 2013, seemingly against his wishes, but more of that later.
What a player he’d been before all that, though.
Porto seemed to be the perfect destination for him to learn his trade on the continent—something Mendes has been aware of for some time and still is—and the goals simply didn’t stop.
There were 72 in 87 appearances over two seasons in Portugal, including a record 18 goals in 16 games as Porto clinched the Europa League title thanks to Falcao’s winner in the final against Braga.
But that Porto side was always going to get broken up as individual parts—including manager Andre Villas-Boas, who left for Chelsea—going their respective ways, and when Falcao’s time came to move into a more established league, it took Atletico Madrid breaking their transfer record to bring him to the Vicente Calderon. It proved to be a wise move.
The Colombian got down to business from the start, scoring six times over his first three appearances at the Calderon against Celtic, Racing Santander and Sporting Gijon—bagging a hat-trick against Racing on his home-league debut.
Effectively tasked with replacing both Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan—who had left for Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively—Falcao was doing his part, but the team weren’t doing theirs, suffering some uninspiring results, including a 5-0 defeat at Barcelona.
It took Gregorio Manzano's removal and Diego Simeone's appointment in December 2011 for the tide to turn.
Suddenly, Falcao’s predatory instincts were making him the prototype forward for a team looking to sit deep and, as a result, not creating a vast number of chances.
Again, he was crucial in the Europa League. Falcao scored twice in a 3-1 win at Lazio in the first knockout round, before netting against Besiktas and in both legs against Hannover 96 as the run continued.
La Liga rivals Valencia were beaten in the semi-finals as the Colombian scored a brilliantly taken goal to put his side 4-1 up in the first leg, and when he scored twice in the Bucharest final to see off Athletic Bilbao, he sealed a second European trophy in three years after what had been 48 years without one.
Thirty-six goals over the 2011/12 season had quite simply made him the king of the red-and-white half of Madrid. Simeone’s game plan revolved around him, and he was playing the best football of his life.
When he scored a first-half hat-trick against European champions Chelsea in a 4-1 UEFA Super Cup final win, there was a widespread recognition that he had become the best around at what he does.
In his match report for that clash, the Guardian’s Dominic Fifield wrote:
Chelsea's centre-halves will be haunted by the memory of confronting the Colombian.
The treble registered before the break was his second in five days, following three in the 4-0 demolition of Athletic Bilbao on Monday, to swell his tally in European competitions to 37 in 40 appearances.
This is a player scouted extensively by Premier League clubs in the past, Chelsea included, when he would have been available at what now feels a knockdown price, but he is out of most clubs' financial reach these days.
He was proving priceless to Atletico, scoring seven more times in the following six games to take his tally to 13 in the opening nine games of the season. These were the types of numbers Atletico weren’t used to, and they were taking Simeone’s side to a new level.
Goal after goal after goal was making Falcao seem like the hottest property outside of the traditional “mega” clubs, and he looked at home as they finished the 2012/13 season in third place, their highest league position for 22 years, while also winning the Copa del Rey after beating Real Madrid in the final.
With 70 goals in 91 games over two seasons, there was obviously plenty of interest in the Colombian come the summer of 2013, and it wasn’t hard to detect Mendes' influence as he moved to Monaco’s newly cashed-up football “project”—not just to the disappointment of Atletico fans but also to those who would have preferred to see him elsewhere.
I knew it would be difficult to remain at the club, principally due to the difficult financial situation that the club was experiencing at the time. ...
It makes me laugh at times when I get asked why I didn't stay at a particular club or why I haven't moved to another side, as if they player has a choice in the matter. ...
On very few occasions can the player make the decision to move from one club or to another. There have been occasions when I've not been able to live in the way I want, many times. I want to go to a particular club and in finally I end up at another.
He’d never again be that player we saw at Atletico, with a serious knee injury at Monaco and then stop-start, sometimes fairly embarrassing, loan spells at United and Chelsea, before a return to Monaco when it seemed no-one else wanted him.
There was a time when everyone did, though, and that was when he was in the red and white of Atleti.