Latin America & Caribbean

TV soap unleashes Carlos Valderrama fever in Colombia

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Media captionThe show is based on Carlos Valderrama and team mates Freddy Rincon, Rene Higuita, and Faustino Asprilla. Footage courtesy Caracol TV.

Colombia's national football is going through one of its best moments.

Currently third in the world football federation's ranking of top international teams after Spain and Germany, it is also only one step away from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

But for many Colombians, the team which still captures their hearts is not the current one, but that captained by Carlos "El Pibe" (The Kid) Valderrama in the 1990s.

Not surprisingly then, a soap opera telling Valderrama's story and that of three other iconic players from that squad - including former Newcastle star, Faustino Asprilla - has become the most watched programme in the country.

Feel-good factor

"To have a TV series making you relive those moments that gave you so much happiness is great," says Edgar Vittorino, the actor who plays Valderrama in La Seleccion, the 60-part series by Caracol Television.

Image caption Vittorino (left) did not think he looked like Valderrama

"The series is cheering many Colombians up. It is reminding us of how it feels to be going to a World Cup," he says.

Memories of Carlos Valderrama's squad are particularly vivid because it qualified for three World Cups in a row - Italy '90, USA '94 and France '98.

It also achieved a legendary 5-0 away victory over Argentina in a World Cup qualifier in 1993.

Vittorino was only five years old at the time but he says that when he started playing football in his home town of Barranquilla he would imitate Valderrama and members of his legendary squad.

The scorpion

"When I played with my friends, I would be El Pibe or [Rene] Higuita. I would try to do the scorpion kick with a rubber ball," he says referring to goalkeeper Rene Higuita's trademark back-heel mid-air kick which stunned the world during a 1995 friendly against England.

Image caption Rene Higuita's scorpion kick became his trademark move

Vittorino says he never dreamt of playing Valderrama, as he thought he bore little resemblance to the legendary midfielder with the blonde afro.

"I was called for the casting, and turned it down," he recalls.

"Then I saw photos of him when he was younger, I noticed that we did look alike," Vittorino says.

But he knew that to play the role he would have to do more than just don a blonde wig.

He trained three hours a day, studied numerous videos of Valderrama's matches and read almost everything that had been written about the player.

He also met Valderrama at his home in Barranquilla and found the 51-year-old "less reserved than everybody believes him to be".

Vittorino also travelled to Santa Marta, where Valderrama´s father, known as Jaricho, and other relatives gave away more details of the player's life.

"Jaricho told me stuff about his son's childhood that El Pibe didn't mention. You know how parents embarrass you, they tell it all," he says, laughing.

Vittorino also went to the neighbourhood where the footballer grew up.

"I went to Pescaito to capture some of the energy, the atmosphere of that place, to get to know him better and to find out where he came from and why he fought do hard to make it."

It is that fighting spirit which in the eyes of Vittorino, defines Valderrama.

Passion and discipline

"His essence are his passion and discipline," he says.

Image caption Edgar Vittorino says the soap has revived Colombians' passion for their squad

"I remember Valderrama playing against [Paraguayan goalkeeper Jose Luis Felix] Chilavert and [Argentine defender Diego] Simeone, as if he was a lion about to devour them. He was defending the Colombian colours.

"That is why he achieved what he achieved, and that is why he is the undisputed captain, the leader: he had lots of passion. He really loved his team, really loved the country and wanted to make his dream come true: to take Colombia to victory."

Vittorino, for his part, is proud that his portrayal of Valderrama has been praised by the midfielder himself.

"El Pibe is really happy. He reckons I am doing a good job imitating how he talks and acts," he says.

But it is above all the comments from football fans saying that he brought to life the heyday of the legendary footballer which make the actor proud.

"The people I meet on the streets hug me and tell me I've done a good job. They tell me they feel like they're watching El Pibe."