After spending most of his career playing club football in South America and Europe, towards the end of his career Valderrama played in Major League Soccer, joining the league in its first season. One of the most recognisable players in the league at the time of its inception, he helped popularise the league during the second half of the 1990s. To this day, he is an icon and is considered one of the most decorated players to ever play in MLS; in 2005, he was named to the MLS All-Time Best XI.
Valderrama began his career at Unión Magdalena of the Colombian First Division in 1981. He also later played for Millonarios in 1984, and joined Deportivo Cali in 1985, before moving to the French First Division side Montpellier, in 1988; despite initially struggling to adapt to the less technical and the faster, more physical, and tactical brand of football being played in Europe, which initially saw him lose his place in the squad, his passing ability later saw him become the club's main creative force, and he played a decisive role as his side won the French Cup in 1990. In 1991, he remained in Europe and joined Spanish side Real Valladolid for a season. He then returned to Colombia in 1992 and went on to play for Independiente Medellín, and subsequently Atlético Junior in 1993, with whom he won the Colombian championship in 1993 and 1995.
Valderrama began his Major League Soccer career with the US side Tampa Bay Mutiny in the league's inaugural year of 1996, and won its ever first Supporters' Shield and Most Valuable Player award, finishing the season with 4 goals and 17 assists. He remained with the club for the 1997 season, and also spent a spell on loan back at Deportivo Cali in Colombia, before moving to another MLS side, Miami Fusion, in 1998, where he also remained for two seasons. He returned to Tampa Bay in 2000, spending two more seasons with the club; while a member of the Mutiny, the team would sell Carlos Valderrama wigs at Tampa Stadium. In the 2000 MLS season, Valderrama recorded the only 20+ assist season in MLS history—ending the season with 26 — a single season assist record that remains intact to this day, and which MLS itself suggested was an "unbreakable" record in a 2012 article. In 2001, Valderrama joined the Colorado Rapids, and remained with the team until 2002, when he retired; his American soccer league career spanned a total of eight years, during which he made 175 appearances. In the MLS, Valderrama scored relatively few goals (16) for a midfielder, but is the league's second all-time leader in assists (114) after Steve Ralston (121), a former teammate. In 2005, he was named to the MLS All-Time Best XI.
Valderrama was a member of the Colombia national football team from 1985 until 1998; he made 111 international appearances, scoring 11 goals, making him the most capped player in the country's history. He represented and captained his national side in the 1990, 1994, and 1998 FIFA World Cups, and also took part in the 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, and 1995 Copa América tournaments.
Valderrama made his international debut on 27 October 1985, in a 3–0 defeat to Paraguay in a 1986 World Cup qualifying match, at the age of 24. In his first major international tournament, he helped Colombia to a third-place finish at the 1987 Copa América in Argentina, as his team's captain, where he was named the tournament's best player; during the tournament he scored the opening goal in Colombia's 2–0 over Bolivia on 1 July, their first match of the group stage.
Some of Valderrama's most impressive international performances came during the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy, during which he served as Colombia's captain. He helped his team to a 2–0 win against the UAE in Colombia's opening match of the group stage, scoring the second goal of the match with a strike from 20 yards. Colombia lost their second match against Yugoslavia, however, needing at least a draw against the eventual champions West Germany in their final group match in order to advance to the next round of the competition. In the decisive game, German striker Pierre Littbarski scored what appeared to be the winning goal in the 88th minute of the game; however, within the last minute of injury time, Valderrama beat several opposing players and made a crucial left-footed pass to Freddy Rincon, who subsequently equalised, sealing a place for Colombia in the second round of the tournament with a 1–1 draw. Colombia were eliminated in the round of 16, following a 2–1 extra time loss to Cameroon.
On 5 September 1993, Valderrama contributed to Colombia's historic 5–0 victory over South American rivals Argentina at the Monumental in Buenos Aires, which allowed them to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Although much was expected of Valderrama at the World Cup, an injury during a pre-tournament warm-up game put his place in the squad in jeopardy; although he was able to regain match fitness in time for the tournament, Colombia disappointed and suffered a first round elimination following defeats to Romania and the hosts USA.
Four years later, Valderrama led his nation to qualify for the 1998 World Cup in France, scoring three goals during the qualifying stages. His impact in the final tournament at the advancing age of 37, however, was less decisive, and, despite defeating Tunisia, Colombia once again suffered a first round exit, following a 2–0 defeat against England, which was Valderrama's final international appearance.
Although Valderrama is often defined as a 'classic number 10 playmaker', due to his creativity and offensive contribution, in reality he was not a classic playmaker in the traditional sense; although he often wore the number 10 shirt throughout his career and was deployed as an attacking midfielder at times, he played mostly in deeper positions in the centre of the pitch, often operating as a deep-lying playmaker, rather than in more advanced midfield positions behind the forwards, in order to have a greater influence on the game. A team-player, Valderrama was also known to be an extremely selfless midfielder, who preferred assisting his teammates over going for goal himself; his tactical intelligence, positioning, efficient movement and versatile range of passing enabled him to both set the tempo of his team in midfield with short, first time exchanges, or create chances with long lobbed passes or through balls.
Valderrama's most instantly recognisable physical features were his big afro-blonde hairstyle, jewelry, and moustache, but he was best known for his grace and elegance on the ball, as well as his agility, and quick feet as a footballer. His control, dribbling ability and footwork were similar to those of smaller players, which for a player of Valderrama's size and physical build was fairly uncommon, and he frequently stood out throughout his career for his ability to use his strength, balance, composure, and flamboyant technique to shield the ball from opponents when put under pressure, and retain possession in difficult situations, which made him extremely popular with the fans. Valderrama's mix of physical strength, two-footed ability, unpredictability and flair enabled him to produce key and incisive performances against top tier teams, while his world class vision and exceptional passing and crossing ability with his right foot made him one of the best assist providers of his time; his height, physique and elevation also made him effective in the air, and he was also an accurate free kick taker and striker of the ball, despite not being a particularly prolific goalscorer.
Despite his natural talent and ability as a footballer, Valderrama earned a reputation for having a "languid" playing style, as well as lacking notable pace, being unfit, and for having a poor defensive work-rate on the pitch, in particular after succumbing to the physical effects of ageing in his later career in the MLS. In his first season in France, he also initially struggled to adapt to the faster-paced, more physical and tactically rigorous European brand of football, which saw him play in an unfamiliar position, and gave him less space and time on the ball to dictate attacking passing moves; he was criticised at times for his lack of match fitness and his low defensive contribution, which initially limited his appearances with the club, although he later successfully became a key creative player in his team's starting line-up due to his discipline, skill, and his precise and efficient passing. Despite these claims, earlier in his career, however, Valderrama demonstrated substantial pace, stamina, and defensive competence.
Former French defender Laurent Blanc, who played with Valderrama in Montpellier, voiced one of the most accurate descriptions for Valderrama, "In the fast and furious European game he wasn't always at his ease. He was a natural exponent of 'toque', keeping the ball moving. But he was so gifted that we could give him the ball when we didn't know what else to do with it knowing he wouldn’t lose it... and often he would do things that most of us only dream about."
In February 2004, Valderrama ended his 22-year career in a tribute match at the Metropolitan stadium of Barranquilla, with some of the most important football players of South America, such as Diego Maradona, Enzo Francescoli and José Luis Chilavert.
Since retiring from professional football, Valderrama has become assistant manager of Atlético Junior. On November 1, 2007, Valderrama accused a referee of corruption by waving cash in the face of Oscar Julian Ruiz when the official awarded a penalty to América de Cali. Junior lost the match 4–1, which ended the club's hopes of playoff qualification.
In 2006, a 22-foot bronze statue of Valderrama, created by Colombian artist Amilkar Ariza, was erected outside Estadio Eduardo Santos in Valderrama's birthplace of Santa Marta.
Valderrama is married and has five children. Valderrama was the only Colombian to feature in FIFA's 125 Top Living Football Players list in March 2004. He is currently a coach for a football academy called Clearwater Galactics sometimes in Clearwater, Florida.
Valderrama appeared on the cover of Konami's International Superstar Soccer Pro 98. In the Nintendo 64 version of the game, he is referred to by his nickname, El Pibe.
Valderrama has also appeared in EA Sports' FIFA football video game series; he was named one of the Ultimate Team Legend cards in FIFA 15.
Scores and results lists Colombia's goal tally first.Montpellier HSCFrench Cup: 1990Atletico JuniorColombian Championship: 1993, 1995Tampa Bay MutinyMLS Supporters' Shield: 1996Copa América MVP: 1987South American Footballer of the Year: 1987, 1993South American Team of the Year: 1987, 1993, 1996MLS All-Star of the Year: 1996Major League Soccer MVP: 1996World Soccer's 100 Greatest Footballers of All Time: 1999Colombian Player of the Century: 1999MLS Assist leader: 2000 (26 assists – a single season record)FIFA 100: 2004MLS All-Time Best XI: MidfielderGolden Foot: 2013, as football legend