Ever since James Rodriguez scored one of the goals of the tournament and then added a second in Colombia’s 2–0 victory over Uruguay last week, he has cemented his status as this World Cup’s breakout star. Rodriguez scored in all four of his World Cup games so far to bring his tally to five, outpacing both Golden Boot favorites Neymar and Lionel Messi by a goal each. His rise to fame has been so sudden that his family, his country, and the rest of the world are rushing to catch up.
The 22-year-old Rodriguez comes from a soccer family from Ibague, a town known mostly as a vacationing spot for nearby Bogotanos. His father held similar promise and talent as a player, but problems with alcohol reportedly stopped his career short. At 14, James was already playing professionally in Colombia, and at 17 he had transferred to Argentina’s Banfield, where he became the youngest foreigner to score professionally in that country.
Before this tournament he was already one of the most expensive soccer players in history after having transferred from Porto to AS Monaco for $61 million in 2013. The European transfer gossip-mills have been reporting that he’s now attracting attention from the biggest clubs in the world. Rodriguez has publically said that he’s not interested in playing in the “physical” Premier League and that he prefers the idea of playing for Real Madrid over Barcelona. Real had been in talks to acquire Rodriguez’s Monaco teammate Radamel Falcao. Any transfer deal that sent both Colombian stars to one team would likely fetch more than $100 million.
Reasons for such a high price abound. His goals at this tournament have been elegant and innovative. On top of his five goals, he has added two assists. He handles complex plays with precision and speed.
Rodriguez is being hailed back home as the new Carlos Valderrama. He already dons the No. 10 shirt of Valderrama, Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Brazil’s Pele. “James has the potential to be the greatest Colombian player to have ever lived,” El Pibe said about his successor, “and perhaps as one of the greatest to have ever played the game.”
Indeed, FIFA has ranked him as the Cup’s best offensive player so far, and he would be a favorite to win the Golden Boot if his team somehow gets past Brazil on Friday. It’s not just the international soccer community and Colombia who have taken note of his skills, though. Lebron James, Chris Bosh, and Rihanna have all tweeted various appreciations for Rodriguez. His and the Colombian national team’s star turns are having an even bigger impact back home. After the Uruguay match, more than 1,400 Colombian babies were named after James, coach José Pékerman, and James’ strike partner Jackson Martínez.
Colombian media are ecstatic. It’s hard for the country to fathom glowing world headlines that aren’t about narcoterrorism or drug lords. Instead, the country is receiving international praise for their Argentine coach Pékerman and for James. The nation now has high but not unreasonable hopes that it could upset tournament hosts and pre-tournament favorites Brazil, who have looked incredibly vulnerable and were very nearly eliminated in the last 16. Brazil also struggled in the group phase to a disappointing 0–0 draw with Mexico, and needed the help of referees to win the opener against Croatia.
Colombia, meanwhile, strolled through the group phase with ease, beating Greece 3–0 in the opener and overcoming a tough Ivory Coast team 2–1 in the second game. If you watched James’ performance against Japan, it was a practically flawless exhibition of soccer. James scored on a move that left Japan defender Maya Yoshida spinning and laid out on the pitch while Rodriguez and his teammates did one of their joyous and elaborate trademark goal celebrations. The Colombians ultimately won the game 4-1 and Rodriguez was involved in three of the four goals. Pekermán, who coached Messi in 2006 for the Argentine national team, said he’s had “extraordinary football players in my teams before—elite players of a very high technical level. I placed everything in James’ hands because I saw an extraordinary talent.”
When Colombia faced Uruguay the world was focused on Luis Suarez’s illegal nibbling, the harsh sentence it incurred, and his notable absence. But early on it was apparent it was going to be Rodriguez’s game. After the game, Uruguay’s coach, Óscar Tabárez, compared him to Maradona and Messi. “I believe he’s the best player at the World Cup and I don’t think I’m exaggerating,” Tabárez said.
Golden Boot rival and Brazil opponent Neymar is also singing James’ praises. “He’s a very complete player, but I hope he plays horribly this Friday,” he joked. If Neymar sounds worried, it’s with good reason.