The World Cup is the biggest shop window in football. It has the greatest stage and the most shoppers stood outside, gawping in at the show. The talent of every player at the tournament isn’t in doubt; after all, you don’t earn a place at the world’s greatest tournament by accident.
But every four years, there are one or two players above all others that really excel, capturing clubs’ imaginations and their nation’s hearts. Four years ago, Luis Suarez burst onto the scene and earned himself a move to Liverpool; the rest is history. Meanwhile, German starlet Manuel Neuer demonstrated that he would go on to great things.
This year’s tournament has been no different. As Suarez’s campaign ended in disgrace, Neuer has dazzled once again between the sticks, and could even go on to lift the Cup. But with the world’s eyes on Brazil, it has been the time to shine for another hoard of talent. Plenty of players have caught the eye – Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas, and the USA’s DeAndre Yedlin are just two of those names.
But for me, there has been one man that has stood above the rest. That man is James Rodriguez. The Colombian number 10 hasn’t just played well. He’s been a revelation; a delight to watch.
Rodriguez, at just 22 years old, already has a plethora of experience and talent to his name. His career began in 2006 in his native Colombia, with Envigado FC, a second division club in the south of the country. In his first season, Rodriguez forged a name for himself as a real prospect as Envigado steamrolled their way into the Colombian First Division, and the following season he’d transitioned seamlessly to Argentine club, Atlético Banfield.
In 2009, Rodriguez helped Banfield to their first ever championship title, and at 17 became the youngest foreigner to score a goal in Argentina. His intelligence, skill and vision won plaudits left, right and centre, with comparisons being drawn to Cristiano Ronaldo.
From there, he earned his break in Europe, signing for Porto in 2010. In three seasons with the Portuguese giants, he secured his spot in the starting line-up, scoring 32 goals and grabbing 21 assists in 105 appearances. That prompted Claudio Ranieri to sign Rodriguez for AS Monaco’s first season back in Ligue 1; the little Colombian was seen as such an exciting talent that he commanded an eye-watering 45 million Euros, making him the most expensive player in Ligue 1 history.
After a good qualifying campaign during which Rodriguez was a major figure, Colombia qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1998 with some impressive results. This led to excited anticipation for Colombia, and as they rose up the FIFA world rankings into third spot with some breath-taking shows of superb football, quiet whispers became loud murmurs that they could upset the apple-cart in Brazil.
With expectation growing, eyes turned towards Rodriguez to help his country to the success they craved. That pressure only intensified with the news that club teammate Radamel Falcao was out of the tournament. Some scoffed, claiming that Colombia’s chances to make an impression were gone. They’d lost ‘El Tigre’ and their prospects were slim. Others looked towards James Rodriguez to take centre stage. They may have lost the tiger, but they still had a lion. His challenge was to become Colombia’s talisman.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to forget that Rodriguez is still only 22. His nickname is ‘El Nino’, which translates as ‘the kid’. But heading to Brazil, he was asked to shine, and shine he did.
In Colombia’s first game, he set up two goals and scored another as they dispatched Greece 3-0. He then slotted home against Ivory Coast and turned provider for Juan Quintero in a 2-1 victory over the Ivory Coast to earn his second man of the match in as many games, before going on to score another in a 4-1 win over Japan. Colombia topped their group with a perfect record, and their playmaker was in sensational form: three goals in three games. Not the worst record you’ll ever see at a World Cup.
As the knockouts began, Los Cafeteros were drawn against Uruguay. The Uruguayans were embroiled in the Suarez debacle, and the world seemed to be willing Colombia to see off their South American rivals in the Maracana. Once again, Rodriguez was the star, scoring both goals as Colombia won 2-0. The first was a stunning solo effort and is genuinely one of the best goals I’ve ever seen. The second one capped off a beautiful team move that encapsulated a superb World Cup for Colombia.
Heading into the quarter-final against Brazil, the focus had become on the battle between two of the World Cup’s brightest stars: Neymar and Rodriguez. In many ways they are similar; both 22, both number 10s and both talismans for their country. Phil Scolari was understandably so concerned about Rodriguez that he stuck Fernandinho on him all game. The Colombian was fouled time and time again as Brazil won ugly. But Rodriguez found time to slot home a penalty, making it a nervy finish and meaning he might well claim the Golden Boot with 6 goals. Although Brazil won the match, Rodriguez won the battle of the number 10s.
During the tournament, Colombia manager Jose Pekerman described Rodriguez as “the best player at the World Cup.” Colombia are an exciting team that play attractive football, and Pekerman is building his side around the player that stole the show. The 1990s were Colombia’s Golden Era. Their star players back then were Faustino Asprilla and Carlos Valderrama, who have both claimed that Rodriguez can become the best Colombian player ever.
By all accounts, Rodriguez has a shy and reserved character, but has many friends in the game. His performances have alerted Europe’s biggest clubs, with Real Madrid and Manchester United both supposedly interested in him. One thing is for certain; big things lie ahead for Rodriguez. His vision and technical ability are up there with the best, and he exploits space well, populating concentrated pockets on the edge of the area. Wherever he ends up, it is likely that he will achieve greatness in the game, and Colombia will be back with a vengeance in 2018.
James Rodriguez has lit up this World Cup; and this is just the beginning.