Colombia midfielder James Rodriguez applauds as he goes off the field during the pre-quarterfinal against Uruguay on Saturday. (AFP)
Any pre-World Cup quiz question about Colombian players starring for Monaco would have prompted a high-speed answer.
Easy. Radamel Falcao, one of the most prolific strikers in Europe over the past four years with Porto, Atletico Madrid and the tax-haven club from the south of France.
Such a Colombian is, indeed, catching the eye among the game’s elite in Brazil. But not Falcao. Sadly for him, he is injured and absent. Instead, it is his 22-year- old club-mate James Rodriguez who has taken on the mantle of inspirational responsibility.
Rodriguez does not answer to “James” with an English pronunciation. His name, Spanish-style, is “Ham-ez”. But however anyone says it, it means goals and assists. Fine goals, too.
Rodriguez executed possibly the finest individual goal of this dramatic World Cup when he struck the first of the Cafeteros’ two goals that beat Uruguay in the second round on Saturday night.
Some 25 minutes had gone in the South American derby when Rodriguez, 25 yards from goal, controlled a high pass on his chest, swivelled through 180 degrees and hit a first-time volley for goal. The shot clipped the underside of the bar with keeper Fernando Muslera flying hopelessly through the air, too late.
In the second half, Rodriguez glided into the penalty box to decisively climax, from close range, a fine all-pitch team passing move.
The goal turned him into the finals’ five-goal leading scorer, made him the first player to score in the first four games of a World Cup since Brazil’s Ronaldo and Rivaldo in 2002, and the first player to score in each of his first four World Cup games since Italy’s Christian Vieri in 1998.
Also, and far more important as he said later, it was a goal that lifted Colombia into the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time in their history.
Veteran World Cup journalists have picked out Rodriguez as the finest player at these finals. But not only the media — Uruguay’s veteran coach, Oscar Washington Tabarez, thinks so too.
Tabarez was still bitter about the suspension of Luis Suarez and Uruguay’s World Cup exit, but he set all that aside when asked to appraise Rodriguez.
“He’s the best player in the World Cup,” said Tabarez. “I’m not exaggerating. We tried to control him but he kept coming back at us. Football needs players like him. I saw him when he came to play in Argentina at 17 and showed he was a talented player.”
Tabarez added: “He does things which a player does through intuition, not experience: like Maradona, like Messi, like Suarez. They can all do things because they have certain gifts that make them special.”
Rodriguez, though off the Euro-centric radar, has been appreciated within the game for quite some time.
Rodriguez, who will still be only 23 on the day before the World Cup final, wandered with his family around the provincial cities of Cucuta to Ibague to Medellin. He was a footballing prodigy. He made his top division debut at 14 for Envigado, played for Colombia in the World Youth Cup and was loaned to Argentina’s Banfield.
At 17, he was the youngest foreigner to play and score in the Argentinian league and at 18, he became the youngest import to share in a championship triumph. That was where Tabarez first saw him.
Italy’s Juventus and Udinese scouted him but were beaten to the signing punch by Porto, who took him to Portugal in 2010. Even then, at 19, Rodriguez cost 5 million euros.
A gambler’s luxury? Not according to Carlos Valderrama. “I think we have a great player here,” said the bouffant-hair playmaker who starred at the World Cup finals for Colombia in the 1990s.
One year later, Rodriguez was a Portuguese champion and then playing in the Champions League. After 32 goals in 107 games in three years in Portugal, his value had exploded to 45 million euros when he was sold last year to Monaco, refinanced by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. He repaid the investment with 10 goals and a league-best 14 assists.
French football appreciates him; Monaco adores himÖ and so now does the World Cup.