Colombia’s new king of football: James Rodriguez
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Relatively unknown before the World Cup kicked off 17 days ago, Colombia’s James Rodriguez is drawing comparisons to football icon Maradona and has set off an earthquake of excitement in his home country by leading the team to the quarter-finals.
Colombia had only managed a 1-1 draw against Japan during the first 45 minutes of their final group stage match on June 24. But things suddenly changed when James Rodriguez came on after half-time.
The South American team reclaimed the lead 10 minutes later when the 22-year-old midfielder set up striker Jackson Martinez to score. Rodriguez assisted Jackson a second time at the 82 minute mark, and then chipped in his own gem of a goal before the final whistle was blown. Final score: Colombia 4, Japan 1.
Fast-forward to Saturday. Facing two-time World Cup champions Uruguay at the legendary Maracana stadium in Rio, Rodriguez scored twice, handing his team a spot in the quarter-finals for the first time ever, and sparking massive parties back home.
El mejor gol del mundial lejos, el que acaba de hacer james.— Radamel Falcao (@FALCAO) 28 Juin 2014
“He was a good bet for the Colombian team,” former national team coach Francisco Maturana told FRANCE 24 after the game. “He’s a team player, who knows how to score, and who plays with joy. Now he’s going to attract global attention.”
Those were not the last words of praise for Rodriguez, who is now the tournament’s leading goal scorer.
“Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez – they do things because they a gift that make them special," Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez told reporters after the match.
“I believe he’s the best player in the World Cup. I don’t think I am exaggerating,” Tabarez added.
The phenomenon from Ibague
His performances in Brazil have led to comparisons with Maradona, but unlike today’s stars such as Messi or Brazil’s Neymar, he is not featuring in million-dollar adverts for football boots and headphones on TV during the tournament.
This is because football insiders have also been taken by surprise by Rodriguez’s skill. He is not even the most famous Colombian player out there – that would be his AS Monaco teammate, Radamel Falcao, sitting out football biggest party after knee surgery.
Six years younger than Falcao, Rodriguez has risen at a dizzying speed through the world of professional football.
He grew up in the central Colombian city of Ibague, where his football talent was first spotted. His father was a football player who never really managed to break into Colombia’s top-tier, and who left the family home when Rodriguez was only three years old.
Rodriguez turned pro at just 14 after being recruited by the Envigado Futbol Club. Three years later he packed his bags for Argentina, where he would shine with CA Banfield.
In 2010, he headed to Europe to play for FC Porto, helping the team claim a Europa League title in 2011. In 2013 he was traded to AS Monaco in France’s League 1.
Rodriguez has made a name for himself in Europe’s big leagues and now on the global stage, but he could be coming up against a World Cup brick wall. Colombia’s victory against Uruguay means they will next face hosts Brazil on July 4.
Brazil has proven impossible to beat on their own turf over the past 12 years.
Even if Colombia’s winning streak is broken by the hometown favourites, Rodriguez has already fulfilled a life-long aspiration and become a national hero in the process.
"We're very happy, because we're making history," he told reporters on Saturday night in reference to reaching the quarter-finals. “When I was younger, I always wanted to be here. It was a big dream of mine, and we hope we can make it bigger.”