With Colombia’s national football team close to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, viewers are tuning in by the millions to a telenovela about their dream team of the 1990s.
The soap opera — known simply as “La Seleccion” (marketed in English as “Football Dreams, a World of Passion”) — is an undeniable runaway smash hit.
The series focuses on the personal struggles and love stories of the national team’s four main players: Carlos “El Pibe” (The Kid) Valderrama, goalkeeper Rene “El Loco” (Madman) Higuita, striker Faustino Asprilla and midfielder Freddy Rincon.
These players formed the backbone of the team that played in World Cup tournaments in Italy in 1990, the United States in 1994, and France in 1998.
“These characters are representative of Colombia, and rich from a dramatic point of view,” said series co-director Ricardo Coral.
Valderrama, known for his trademark bushy blond afro, was the team captain and a born leader. Internationally he played for Montpellier in France, Real Valladolid in Spain, and later with US soccer teams.
Higuita, who sported long, curly black hair, was the goalkeeper known for his spectacular “scorpion kick” and for daring forays far from his goal posts. He also played for Real Valladolid, and for Veracruz in Mexico.
Striker Asprilla, a media diva, played internationally in Italy and Britain, while midfielder Rincon, who played for SSC Napoli, Real Madrid and teams in Brazil, was known for his tenacity and determination, Coral said.
Fed up with ‘narco-dramas’
Colombian soaps in the past years have focused on the usual fare of steamy love stories as well as “narco dramas” — stories about the country’s decades-long conflict involving drug traffickers, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces.
“We wanted to state — loud and clear — that Colombia is not only made up of drug traffickers and paramilitary fighters,” Coral told AFP.
“We want to change that view and give a fresh one that shows high personal values, hard work, and massive effort, which also represents us.”
Coral acknowledges Colombia’s dark side, “but we’re fed up with seeing it.”
The decision to shy away from drug trafficking led producers to cut out a scene in which Higuita meets Colombia’s most famous drug lord, the late Pablo Escobar.
Colombian football clubs were soaked with drug money in the 1980s and 1990s, so it was impossible to avoid the topic.
“We mention it, but it’s not a main part of the storyline,” said Coral, who acknowledged taking some artistic liberties.
“The story is based on their lives, but it’s not a fully accurate portrayal. We had to introduce changes to create more tension for dramatic purposes,” he said.
Nevertheless there is plenty of humor, and real-life drama worthy of a Garcia Marquez novel — like the time that Higuita was courting a young woman who turned out to be his half-sister.
“His father shows up and tells him: ‘she is your sister, you can’t get involved with her,'” Coral said. “It sounds like fiction, but it’s true.”
Part of the success of the series relies on the physical similarities between the actors and the football stars.
Edgar Vittorino, the actor who portrays Valderrama, said he was terrified to represent a national icon.
People would “love or hate me for the rest of my life because I was portraying their idol,” he told AFP.
Vittorino was studying in the United States when he was approached by the series producers. He prepared by buying a blond afro wig in New York and watching videos of Valderrama interviews.
Later he visited the neighborhood where Valderrama grew up, in the northern coastal city of Santa Marta, and spent an afternoon with the football great.
“Every year there was a telenovela about narcotrafficking and violence. Now, not just parents, but children too, can sit down and watch this show,” Vittorino said.
The first part of the series ends with the 5-0 blowout Colombia dished out to Argentina in Buenos Aires in a 1993 World Cup qualifying match, and with players visiting Higuita in prison, where he spent six months for helping negotiate the release of a friend’s kidnapped daughter.
The prison sentence meant that Higuita missed the 1994 World Cup tournament in the United States.
Filming for the second part of the series begins in early 2014, and will take the team through the qualifying round and into the 1998 World Cup in France.
Watch a scene from “La Selección,” posted by Caracol TV, below.