WORLD CUP USA '94 : PRIME TIME : Valderrama and Rest of the World's Best Players Can Create Hair-Raising Situations for Opposing Defenses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In football, baseball and hockey, they do whatever they can to cover it up. In basketball, they are determined to get rid of it altogether, soon to leave us with an entire league of players whose heads are smoother than the ball they use to clank off the backboard.

But in soccer, hair is celebrated, liberated, allowed to grow and flow, rolling down the necks of Spaniards, coursing against the backs of Bolivians, venerated to the point where the world's best player, Roberto Baggio of Italy, showed up at training camp this year with one fervent request:

"Don't ask me to cut my ponytail."

And nowhere in soccer is hair celebrated the way it is atop the head of Colombia midfielder Carlos Valderrama, whose glowing out-of-control blond Afro is already the No. 1 tourist attraction in the 1994 World Cup--and rumored to once have helped land night flights at the airport in Bogota.

Mere words fall short when attempting to convey the awesomeness of Valderrama's hair in motion during a match, rising and setting like the sun with every stride downfield.

How does one describe the indescribable?

One of Van Gogh's sunflowers on the loose?

A movable haystack?

Medusa's serpents with a bad case of jaundice?

Newsweek has nominated Valderrama as "most telegenic" player in this World Cup and already, photographers are prepping for Wednesday's match between Colombia and the United States, which figures to yield the shot of the tournament--a potential midair collision between Valderrama and Alexi Lalas, the red-haired Rasputin of the American back line.

One head ball between those two and they'll need extra time to detangle the mess.

As cameras rat-tat-tat around him and rabid fans in cheesy yellow fright wigs follow him from stadium to stadium, Valderrama wonders what the fuss is about. On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where he was born and raised, Valderrama claims his look is common. In the beach town of Santa Marta, men grow their hair long and unruly, he says, and the tropical sun bleaches it.

"Contrary to what some say, my hair is natural," Valderrama once said. "I was lucky to be successful, and my hair helped me to become known. I will not change it for anything in the world."

Why would he?

Valderrama's burning bush has a become a symbol for a nation, and something of a personal spokesman for the wearer. Valderrama is notoriously soft-spoken; he barely raises his voice above a whisper during interviews, saying little. South American journalists describe him as misterioso . Valderrama prefers to let his follicles do the talking for him. His hair is there for interpretation, and it is scrutinized for hidden meaning, much the way rock fans in the '60s played Beatles records backward.

So an English soccer publication studies Valderrama's hair and surmises that it is "a metaphor for his football: dense, flamboyant and totally unconventional."

And Antonio Correa, the Colombian soccer team liaison, says Valderrama's hair "expresses what type of person he really is. He comes across as introverted, quiet and methodical, yet he's capable of doing these pretty incredible things on the field."

Valderrama is no goal scorer. In almost 10 years with the Colombian national team, he has but five goals. He has never been especially swift afoot, and now he is 32, four months removed from arthroscopic knee surgery.

Yet, on a continent with Romario and Maradona and Bebeto, Valderrama was voted South America's player of the year in 1993, duplicating his 1987 achievement.

He won it the same way Magic Johnson won his MVP awards--for re-inventing his position, for playmaking that boggles the mind, for dribbling and passing and doing things with the ball previously regarded beyond the reach of the human race.

Sigi Schmid, an assistant coach with the U.S. team, calls Valderrama "the one guy I'd pay to watch play in the World Cup."

Rick Davis, former U.S. star and now a World Cup commentator, played against Valderrama several times in international competition.

"What he does out there is magic--there's no other word for it," Davis said. "The guy can just cut a team apart."

Valderrama describes his soccer as "happy," that it is his "purpose to give the people of Colombia a moment of happiness. I think when we step on the field and play the way we do, we bring happiness."

And leave the talking to others, such as in Brazil, where Romario and Bebeto are only too glad to pick up the slack.

Romario and Bebeto are reasons 1 and 2 as to why Brazil is among the favorites to win this year's World Cup. Or reasons 2 and 1, depending on who's speaking.

Romario is only too glad to tell anyone within earshot that "Brazil will be the new world champion and I will be be the best possible help for the team and our million fans."

He also proclaims: "It will become my tournament."

By Romario standards, these are gross understatements.

Not only does Romario wear the No. 10 jersey of the legendary Pele, but he has called Pele "mentally retarded" and "a museum piece." So far this year he has lambasted Brazilian Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira for naming Rai to the World Cup squad ahead of Valdo (Rai is merely team captain); ridiculed teammate Muller for being nothing more than a good club player; and refused to sit next to Bebeto on a charter flight to the United States.

Who is better, Romario or Bebeto, is a debate that has been waged for years, to no resolution.

No such argument is necessary in Nigeria, where 6-3, 200-pound center forward Rashidi Yekini reigns supreme as king of African soccer. Voted Africa's player of the year in 1993, Yekini has led three countries in scoring during his professional career--Nigeria, Portugal and the Ivory Coast--and produced eight of Nigeria's 17 goals during World Cup qualifying.

"My business is to score goals," Yekini said after leading Nigeria to the African Nations Cup in April. Yekini had five goals in Nigeria's first four games in the Nations Cup. Before that, he led the Portuguese League with 18 goals in 30 games for Setubal.

Switzerland comes to the United States with a goal-scoring howitzer in striker Stephane Chapuisat. Chapuisat, 24, accounted for six goals as Switzerland qualified for its first World Cup in 28 years and has totaled 51 goals in his last three seasons with the German club team Borussia Dortmund.

And the best player to set foot on American soil this World Cup, at least in the consensus of the globe's soccer coaches and media, is Italy's Baggio. Both groups named Baggio player of the year in 1993 and Baggio says he plans on using this tournament to eliminate all dissenters.

Baggio spawned nationwide controversy by converting to Buddhism in the bastion of Roman Catholicism, a decision that has left Mathilde Baggio with only two hopes for her son:

"That Roberto leads Italy to the World Cup and that he might re-convert."

Everything about Baggio attracts attention, all the way down to the curly black ponytail that bounces on his shoulders as he leads a rush to the net. Italians have bestowed a nickname upon the ponytail. "Il Divino Codino," they call it. "The Divine Bow."

They are the world's soccer stars of the here and now, and they are ours, on loan, for the next month. Catch them while you can, because their itinerary in the United States barely amounts to a stopover.

Hair today, gone tomorrow.

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