'Rodagol' hopes to catch up with Messi

He outshone Barça's genius as a youth player but things have not gone so well for Wigan's striker – until now, he tells Ian Herbert
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The Independent Online

There were grounds for a rueful smile in rain-drenched Lancashire during this week of paeans for Lionel Messi. The Argentine collected the Ballon d'Or on Tuesday, the latest staging post in a footballing journey which began at the Fifa Under-20 World Cup of 2005, generally remembered as Messi's coming out party.

But the tournament in the Netherlands wasn't the only one of that year. At the South American youth championships, where Messi was widely expected to be the dominant player, he found himself eclipsed by one Hugo Rodallega, a striker who has made it as far as Wigan on his own journey, but is beginning to provide evidence of why he broke all South American goalscoring records that summer.

Rodallega, or "Rodagol" as he's known to most Colombians, started the under-20s tournament on the bench but soon arrived, coming on in the second half of the opening game against Bolivia to score four times. He duly rewrote the South American record books, with 11 goals in nine games as Colombia took the title. They headed to the world championships, only to meet Argentina in the first knock-out round and lose 2-1 to a last-minute Julio Barroso goal.

The tournament became Messi's. Rodallega's career took a different course. His prodigious club record saw him lured from Colombia to Mexico but his spell at Monterrey was disastrous, a loan move to Atlas forgettable and despite a decent 2007-08 season at Necaxa, his potential seemed unfulfilled. Then Wigan manager Steve Bruce, whose trawl of central and South America had unearthed such riches as Antonio Valencia and Wilson Palacios, signed him in January last year.

Questions were asked when his first 11 games failed to elicit a goal but it is now felt that Rodallega was thrown into the fray too early, after Emile Heskey left for Aston Villa, and a truer picture emerged at the back of last season – three goals in the last four games, including one against Manchester United, contributed significantly to the extra £8m Wigan secured by finishing 11th. Rodallega's strike at Sunderland last week took him to six in this campaign.

His resolve certainly makes him a more reliable prospect than Amr Zaki, Wigan's Egyptian import who set the League alight last autumn, scoring nine by early December but infuriated Bruce with his unreliability. "To become a better player you should always set yourself targets and I do that. I do it with my close friends and family," Rodallega says. "This season I thought 15. I suppose I have six now and there is half a season to go so it's still a realistic target."

It was the same figure he told his manager Roberto Martinez about at the start of the campaign, which began with his auspicious strike in the win at Aston Villa, though few goals will probably be more satisfying to club or player this season than the strike against Sunderland last Saturday which gave Martinez three points to atone for the 9-1 defeat at Tottenham. "We knew we had to rid ourselves of that bitter memory of the shameful defeat to Tottenham," the 24-year-old says, his resolve to score underlined by the fact that he had suffered a bad fall earlier in that game, which left him feeling dizzy. "I felt I was on the edge of losing consciousness at one stage," he says. "The physio said to the gaffer that he was going to have to make a change but I said, 'No, I want to carry on'. I never want to leave a game."

As he talks, you get a sense of what Martinez meant earlier this season when he spoke about the welcome type of "arrogance" in Rodallega. "He's a typical example," the manager said. "He feels he's going to score in any game. He's very, very arrogant, in the right way."

One of the most colourful range of boots in the Premier League – each with the Colombian flag stitched in – adds to this general impression. "Yellow, red, orange, white, blue," he says, detailing his collection. "The one I will never wear is black. And not pink." (Emmerson Boyce suggested a few weeks ago that pink was in the repertoire, but we'll just take Rodallega at his word.) There's the Carlos Tevez style thumb-sucking celebration, too, in recognition of his little boy, Hugo, who is currently kicking a ball around the Rodallega front room for the first time. The player promises another if he scores at home to Birmingham today. "It's still under wraps."

Given the recent Sunday afternoon at White Hart Lane, it may be of relief to Martinez to know that Rodallega is not averse to a spell between the sticks if the moment is called for. In his full international debut for Colombia, a stand-in was needed after Robinson Zapata was dismissed 10 minutes from the end against the United States in the Copa America in Venezuela, when all three substitutes had been used. "As a kid I always liked to play in goal and in training I messed about and went in goal so I volunteered," he relates of Colombia's 1-0 win. "I didn't let in a goal. I made two or three good saves."

Wigan's bumpy season suggests there will be much outfield work at hand, though Rodallega does not believe that the journey, which began in 2005, is necessarily finished yet. "Wigan are the club that brought me here and from day one I've been treated really well," he says. "My desire is to leave my mark on Wigan. But footballers are always ambitious and if a bigger club was to come in you have to be honest and take the situation as it happens. As an individual you think of your own future."

Hugo on a hot streak: Rodallega's record

*Hugo Rodallega has hit a hot scoring streak for Wigan, and is among the top Premier League goalscorers since 9 May last season. His tally of nine goals compares with some of the more usual names at the top of the scoring charts – only Jermain Defoe, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney, Robbie Keane and Louis Saha have hit more in the same period.

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