Falcao nearing destination on long road back from injury hell
When Radamel Falcao rippled the net in Colombia's group stage win against Poland, memories of the striker at his peak came flooding back.
The anticipation, the touch, the finish, the speed of thought and deed; this was the talisman who led Porto to a domestic and European Treble, the human wrecking ball who demolished Chelsea with a hat-trick for Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.
It was not the player who left England two years ago with his career on the line; the paling shadow who managed only five goals in 36 Premier League appearances for Manchester United and Chelsea before returning to Monaco unsure of his future.
At that stage, moments such as the one Falcao seized in Kazan were a distant dream.
He had been cruelly denied a place at the 2014 World Cup due to a knee injury sustained halfway through his first season at Monaco, when he was sent crashing in a Coupe de France tie against fourth division Monts d'Or Azergues.
It is a measure of the man that in the aftermath of that incident, in the darkest moments when his chance of playing at a first World Cup appeared to have been snatched away, he reached out to Soner Ertek on Twitter, the defender left distraught by the damage his tackle had caused.
"Don't blame yourself," wrote Falcao. "Accidents happen in football."
The repercussions of this accident were enduring. Falcao watched from the sidelines as a free-spirited Colombian side imbued with a sense of destiny reached the quarter-finals in Brazil.
He moved to Manchester under Louis van Gaal but started only 14 matches in the league, with his personal struggles put into sharp focus when he lasted only an hour in FA Cup fixtures against Yeovil and Preston.
It was the same story at Chelsea. After a solitary strike in a home defeat to Crystal Palace in August, he was rarely seen beyond the training pitches at Cobham, wondering whether, at 30 years of age, it was all over.
It had been two years since Falcao had played pain-free and for many footballers that might have been the end. But the Colombian has always had his faith, and so it was in early 2016 that he sought one final shot at salvation.
A renowned physiotherapist from Brazil, Eduardo Santos, had been recommended to him by a number of the game's top professionals. They shared a mutual contact, Andre Villas-Boas, who had coached Falcao at Porto and was managing Zenit Saint Petersburg, where Santos headed up the medical department. The striker booked a consultation and Santos travelled to meet him.
"It was a very difficult time for him," Santos says. "The first time that I spoke to him I could see that he was without any confidence. It's very common for this to happen with players who have injury problems. Sometimes they start thinking that the problem is them.
"A lot of fears will come to their mind. They start believing that, 'okay, I tried everything. I did a lot of treatments with a lot of doctors at a lot of clubs and I cannot get better, so it seems like I can't play football again.' The first time we met I showed him that the problem wasn't him. It was the treatment he did before."
The pair began working together right away. Santos would fly to London on his days off to meet Falcao at Chelsea, and at other times the striker travelled to Russia, the final destination for the journey he was about to undertake. There was rapid progress in his rehabilitation and suddenly he had reason to believe.
"The first thing was to break this wall in his mind that he wouldn't be able to come back at the same level," says Santos.
"Every exercise I gave him worked both the body and the mind. You must be truly focused on what you're doing otherwise the exercise doesn't work. He was very disciplined, and when he started to see that his body could do better - that he wasn't feeling pain, that he had more speed, could do more actions, shoot quickly, be more explosive - he started to believe what I said to him."
There are many remarkable stories to be told about the 736 players at the World Cup and the challenges they have overcome, but ahead of England's last-16 clash with Colombia tomorrow, Falcao's holds particular resonance.
As the devastating impact of his injury played out in the Premier League, it was painful to witness the unravelling of one of game's great strikers. When he left Chelsea, having made just one appearance since the end of October 2016, the idea of Falcao playing at the 2018 World Cup would have scarcely seemed believable.
But he had already shared his plans with the man leading his recuperation.
"When I was working with him at Chelsea, we spoke about his goals. It was his dream to play at the World Cup," says Santos. "When I see him playing now it's emotional for me. When I treat my patients and they go on to become champions and they score again, it's as if it's me playing football.
"I'm from Brazil, but I don't play good football. I work better with my hands and my brain. But when I see him playing again with confidence, the real Falcao, I am really happy for him. From our first conversation he told me he wants to play in the World Cup and now he's there."
It has been a long and arduous road back to the top, but as Falcao learned to trust his body again, he rediscovered the ruthless streak that had terrorised European defences since his move to Porto from River Plate in 2009.
He captained Monaco to the Ligue 1 title, scoring 27 goals as the French side reached the Champions League semi-finals, and claimed another 24 goals in preparation for his World Cup debut.
It has been an almost inconceivable comeback, assisted by Santos and his family every step of the way.
"His wife and his parents were always around him when I was treating him," says Santos. "They support him a lot. But the real strength was inside him."
That work continues every single day as Falcao repeats the exercises that have helped him to rebuild. His vitality has returned and, as he leads the Colombian charge to Moscow, England would do well to blank out the misrepresentation they encountered in the Premier League.
El Tigre will face the Three Lions having seen his strength and skill restored. Santos understands his hunger more than anyone.
"He knows how much he worked, how much he suffered to be there," he says. "I know how much he worked to be there. He is going to give 100pc of his body and his mind to win this game."
© Independent News Service