For the last two years, the once exceptional Radamel Falcao has been a ghost floating through Manchester United, the Colombian national team, and now Chelsea. His utterly forgettable appearance in the second half of the Community Shield was a continuation of his goalless Copa America (in which he was replaced by Jackson Martinez for the quarterfinal, even though he was the team’s captain) and his disappointing season with Man United (in which he was dropped to the U-21 squad at one point).
Though there have been many high profile strikers who have suffered long periods of vanishing form, few have been anywhere near as anonymous as Falcao has been during this period. He hasn’t had the spectacular misses of Fernando Torres or the controversies of Mario Balotelli. It’s almost like he’s not even there. And that’s because he isn’t.
During his four seasons with Porto and Atletico Madrid, Falcao rapidly built a reputation as one of the world’s most reliable and devastating strikers. He scored 142 goals in 178 appearances, leading each club to a Europa League title and finishing fifth in Ballon d’Or voting in 2012. This prompted a big money move to Monaco, where Falcao continued to stockpile goals like a doomsday prepper with canned goods.
Midway through his first season with the club, he suffered a couple of leg injuries that first hobbled him, then ended his campaign in January 2014. In reality, this was the end of Falcao’s career as a footballer. At 29 years old, Falcao realized the severity of his injury and quietly retired to a life of luxury in Monaco. But the rest of us could not comprehend or accept the idea of a world class player at the top of his game and in the prime of his career being satisfied to suddenly stop voluntarily with just two Europa League titles to show for it. So the shared hallucination took hold.
This global delusion initially manifested into reports of Falcao having a 50/50 chance to play that summer’s World Cup in Brazil — an event in which the Colombian was expected to star. However, shortly before the tournament began, there was a break in the psychological creation of this narrative and it was announced that Falcao would not be able to join Colmbia’s squad.
Rather than shatter the fantasy of Falcao’s continuing career, it only made things worse. After the tournament, it was said that he had somehow made a complete recovery and a loan move to Manchester United was concocted and widely celebrated. All while the real Falcao enjoyed life on the French Riviera with his young family, blissfully unaware.
The imaginary Falcao was once again exposed. While managers, players, journalists and fans all saw a once great footballer struggle in the Premier League, in actuality there was nothing more than an unfilled position on the pitch or an empty seat on the bench. For example, you might look at the following picture and see Falcao sitting in one of the seats on the away bench before Swansea’s match against Man United last February, but all of the seats were actually empty in that moment.
He was credited with a total of four goals, all in lower profile matches against Everton, Aston Villa, Leicester and Stoke. All of these goals were actually scored by James Wilson.
Despite this jarring disappointment, the imaginary Falcao was not allowed to fade into the recesses of our minds, though. He was not only named to Colombia’s Copa America team, but made captain, as well. Of course, a team with a ghost captain simply cannot compete at a high level, and Colombia failed to match the brilliance of their World Cup campaign the previous summer, finishing third in their group and going out on penalties against Argentina.
And still, imaginary Falcao persisted. A second loan, this time to Chelsea, was reported. And that brings us to the present.
Perhaps one more season of disappointment will be enough to finally dissolve the shared hallucination, or maybe it will persist until the last person who saw the real Falcao play dies off. There is a third scenario, though. One in which the real Falcao decides to return to the game, ending our need for the imaginary one.
“I’m back!” he’ll say, sending a chill up our spines as we finally realize the self-deception we are capable of in order to hide from the truth.