Rising stars on collision course as host Brazil face Colombia
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Colombia are hoping to pull off an upset when they face host Brazil in their first-ever World Cup quarter-final on Friday, with many wondering if the tournament’s dark horse, James Rodriguez, can steal the spotlight from Brazilian darling Neymar.
The two Latin American squads are meeting in the northeast city of Fortaleza in what has been billed as a World Cup duel between the two most exciting young talents on the planet: Brazilian poster boy Neymar, 24, and the Colombian phenomenon Rodriguez, 22.
Brazil have struggled throughout the Cup. The hosts only managed a draw against Mexico in the group stage, and barely squeezed past Chile, defeating them on penalties to reach the quarter-finals on June 28th.
Nevertheless, Brazil have the benefit of home-field advantage, and can boast of being unbeaten on their turf in over a decade.
Colombia’s list of accomplishments so far includes winning every match in the competition, and conceding just two goals.
Riding a wave of patriotic fervour, Colombians tuning into the game are looking to their number 10 to work his magic one more time.
‘The new Maradona’
Rodriguez, whose name was barely known before the start of the tournament three weeks ago, has become its leading scorer.
With five goals and two key assists he has led Colombia to a historic-first appearance at the quarter-finals and captured the imagination of an entire country in the process.
According to the Colombian academic and journalist Alberto Martinez, Rodriguez has helped mend ties in a country sharply divided by politics.
“When the tournament started, Colombia was just emerging from a bitter presidential election. Seven million people voted for President [Juan Manuel] Santos, who was re-elected, and six million voted for Oscar Ivan Zuluaga,” Martinez explained.
“Rodriguez and the national team have brought us back together. We are a united country, behind a common objective. They have put a smile back on our face,” he added.
The wily AS Monaco midfielder’s exploits on the field have also earned him comparisons to football icon Diego Maradona.
“We have put all our faith in the national team and the phenomenon called James Rodriguez. But Rodriguez has also claimed international recognition, doubling our sense of pride,” Martinez noted.
Unlike Rodriguez, the planet was well acquainted with Brazil’s Neymar before the tournament started, thanks to his 2013 transfer to Barcelona and his million-dollar advertising campaigns for football boots and other merchandise.
Neymar has so far scored four goals in as many games and netted his side’s decisive penalty against Chile, becoming the nation’s firm favourite.
“Brazilians don’t generally like a player who is associated with so much advertising,” said Brazilian journalist Sergio Charlab. “Neymar’s celebrity status has moved past the football pitch, but there is no doubt he is our strongest player and that we are relying on him to advance.”
Charlab admitted that no other Brazilian players have shined at football’s high mass, and doubts exist about how far Neymar can continue to carry the team on his own.
“Brazilian teams in past World Cups had three or four outstanding players. I’m thinking for example about Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho,” Charlab lamented. “There are other good players on this Brazil team, but Neymar is above the others. Sometimes we think the team is Neymar and 10 other players.”
So far, Neymar has coped remarkably well with the pressure from 200 million expectant Brazilian fans. At just 24 years of age, he may also have to endure the weight of their disappointment.