Colombia vs Uruguay: James Rodriguez weaves his magic and casts a spell that can bewitch Uruguay

The best player of the tournament so far can continue his fine form at the Maracana

James Rodriguez is halfway through his announcement. The little midfielder has been the player of the World Cup so far. He has led Colombia’s dance through Group C, making it very clear to anyone watching that he intends to be one of the best footballers in the world.

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It has been compelling football from the player known simply as James, who is ready to play the biggest match of his career: a World Cup knockout match, in the Maracana, against Uruguay, for the right to face Chile or Brazil in the quarter-finals; it would daunt any 22-year-old.

But James (pronounced Hamez) is yet to face a test he has not passed, or a responsibility he has not assumed. It is the story of his young career but also of his World Cup. Colombia are here without Radamel Falcao, their world-class striker. Rather than be bothered by this, James has asserted himself as the leader of the team in Brazil, just as he did when  his Monaco team-mate Falcao first suffered his injury  in January.

Read more: Rodriguez stars to transform the game against Japan
 

James has played two and a half of Colombia’s three group games, and has produced a montage of brilliance. The delightful shimmy and chip for his goal against Japan was wonderful, but so was the sharp stab to score against Greece, the step-over for Pablo Armero’s goal in that game and the punchy header against Ivory Coast. Of the eight Colombia goals while James has been on the pitch, he has scored three and made four.

Coach Jose Pekerman, who has rebuilt the team around his precocious No 10, is delighted. “He has reached the very highest standards among players with his characteristics,” Pekerman said last week, and a list of better creative midfielders in world football would not be very long.

 

James, for anyone unlucky enough not to see much of him yet, has balletic feet, a firework burst over short distances and a priceless awareness of what is going on around him. He has limitless imagination and the hard skills to beat teams. James is a magical realist in Colombia’s midfield and the nation’s new favourite son.

Ever since he was 12, James has been well known in Colombia. He dazzled at the nationally televised Pony Futbol tournament in 2004, helping win the cup for Tolimense Academy and scoring direct from a corner in the final. James was quickly signed by professional side Envigado FC – to this day the Tolimense Academy are upset by how this happened, and how little money they received – making his Colombian league debut against Quindio, at the age of 15.

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James Rodriguez celebrates scoring for Colombia

 

It did not take long for the baby-faced  midfielder/ winger – he barely looks 15 even now – to outgrow Colombian football and in 2008 he was signed by Banfield, a small club in the Buenos Aires suburbs, who had never won the title before. At the age of 17, he became the youngest foreigner to start a game in the Primera Division. A year later, James, playing on the left, helped to inspire Banfield to their first Argentina Championship.

The next test was his debut in the Copa Libertadores, in 2010. James took to it better than anyone, scoring five goals as Banfield reached the last 16. Of course, European clubs started to notice and Benfica tried to sign him. Porto, hearing of Benfica’s interest, jumped in and out-muscled their Portuguese rivals, signing James in July 2010 on a four-year deal for a €5million (£3m).

If James’ first season in Europe was for adjustment, it was not exactly without success. Andre Villas-Boas’ Porto side were unbeaten league champions, as well as winning the Portuguese Cup and Europa League. James played roughly half the games out on the left, where he was good but still coming to terms with the physical and tactical demands of European club football.

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The next season, under new manager Vitor Pereira, James – physically stronger, smarter and more disciplined than when he arrived – was better. Fully adjusted to what was asked of him, he started twice as many league games, scoring 13 goals and providing the ammunition for Hulk as Porto retained their title.

The year after that, Porto were champions again, sneaking past a superior Benfica side at the very end of the season.

That was three titles in three seasons but James, even though still 21, was ambitious and wanted something different. Jorge Mendes, the Portuguese super-agent, was helping to build something at Monaco and he arranged for James and team-mate Joao Moutinho to sign for the Ligue 1 side for a combined €70m. Former Porto team-mate Falcao followed from Atletico Madrid.

This was a very different league, more physical than Portugal’s, and James took some time to adapt. Then Monaco coach Claudio Ranieri even spoke of a “problem of mentality”, that James “thinks like an attacker but has to defend too”. At Porto, it took James one year to learn his new role. At Monaco, it took a few months. By Christmas, Ranieri had built a 4-4-2 diamond system, with James at the tip. He soon started to produce and finished the season with nine goals and 12 assists – more than anyone else in the division.

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Without the injured Radamel Falcao Colombia were meant to have little hope

 

What stood out most was how, when Falcao ruptured his knee ligaments in a French Cup game against non-league side Chasselay in January, James took responsibility for the side. He had more freedom to move, and he used it, making the team function even without their star name. Monaco finished second and will be back in the Champions League next season, where James belongs.

It is the same responsibility that James has assumed for Colombia. Pekerman said that it was his “saddest day” as coach when he could not take Falcao with him to Brazil. His happiest one could come in the next few weeks. The final is on 13 July, the day after James Rodriguez turns 23.

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