Can Colombia’s James Rodríguez quiet critics at Copa América?

Before Colombia‘s Copa América warm-up match against Bolívia, a presentation was made to James Rodríguez to honor his 100th game for the national team. And then he went out and pulled the strings as Colombia coasted to a 3-0 win.

At the current rate, it would take him a long time to reach the milestone of 100 games for his current club. He has been with Sao Paulo of Brazil for 11 months, in which time he has played just over 20 matches. In the last two months, he has played precisely 10 minutes. He is a forgotten man at his club, while at the same time being a key performer in a Colombia team that has put together a long unbeaten run. It is a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. James.

A decade ago, when he joined Real Madrid after an outstanding breakout World Cup, young Rodríguez appeared to have the world at his feet. Champions League occasions were going to be his natural habitat, the big matches where the left-footed Colombian would impose his class on proceedings. Instead, he was the ghost at the party when Madrid recently won yet another Champions League.

Perhaps the ghost was even more present in the semifinal, when Real overcame Bayern Munich. It was a meeting of two former clubs of Rodríguez, while he was languishing unwanted in Brazil. Second to Lucas Moura, he is the highest-paid player at Sao Paulo. And he has produced next to nothing.

Three coaches have tried to unravel the riddle. Club president Julio Casares commented recently said that “it doesn’t appear that James Rodríguez figures in the plans of our coach.” And with the team clocking up a sequence of victories in his absence, his exclusion has not been even slightly controversial.



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Brazil is the tenth country in which Rodríguez has played his football. The first five were on the way up — little Envigado in Colombia, winning a rare league title with Banfield in Argentina, off to success with Porto and then Monaco before landing at Real Madrid. The subsequent five have felt like a global tour of disappointment. Germany (Bayern Munich), England (Everton), Qatar (Al Rayyan) and Greece (Olympiakos) all saw flashes of brilliance amid the problems.

Brazil is still waiting for the flashes of brilliance.

Niggling injuries have clearly been a significant part of the story. At most of his many clubs, he has been forced out of action for prolonged periods. But there is surely more to it than that. Perhaps former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland international Ray Houghton put his finger on it back at the moment of triumph, when Rodríguez was negotiating with Real Madrid in 2014.

Houghton’s take was that the player was not quite quick enough, that he lacked that vital half yard of pace, to be the star of the show in a Real Madrid team where Cristiano Ronaldo was king of the hill. It proved a brilliant observation. Rodríguez could never make himself the main man. On the contrary, he became progressively less important to the team.

In each of his six seasons in Madrid, he played fewer games than in the one before, and his grand total of 37 goals in 125 games for the club is hardly impressive. If Gareth Bale, with 106 goals in 258 matches, is considered not to have lived up to expectations, then where does that leave Rodríguez?

The probable answer is that it left him frustrated, and dealing with the aftermath of disappointment has not been easy.

Has his attitude always been correct? There have certainly been complaints at Sao Paulo. TV Gazeta journalist Jose Pais said that club insiders had told him that “at times there appears to be a lack of commitment on the part of James Rodríguez. … Sometimes in physical training sessions the others are doing four or five sprints and he is only doing one.”

And back in March, Sao Paulo were knocked out of the local state championship on a penalty shootout. Rodríguez was playing that night but did not step up to take a penalty. This, said Jose Pais, “bothered some of the other players.” It may have been the moment when it became hard to see a future for him at the club.

Sao Paulo allowed Rodríguez to leave early to join up with the Colombia squad preparing for the Copa América. There is almost certainly the hope on all sides that he will find himself a new club — he has expressed a desire to return to Spain — and that he does not have to return to Brazil after the Copa. He is superfluous to Sao Paulo’s requirements, but the 32-year-old remains of great importance to Colombia — although this relationship has also not been without its troubles.

Rodríguez established himself as the most important player of the national team during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers — and then in the tournament in Brazil, he exploded as a genuine star. Four years later, he was once again magnificent in Colombia’s 3-0 destruction of Poland. It was one of the best displays of the tournament. However, it was the only time at the World Cup in Russia that he was fit. Without him, Colombia fell to England in the second round — and they have not played a World Cup match since.

Their failure to qualify for Qatar was truly extraordinary — with a talented side going seven games in a row without scoring a single goal. Rodríguez was part of the problem. He fell out with former Colombia coach Reinaldo Rueda, was dropped, and then recalled for the last four of those goalless games, without improving matters.

There were rumors of dissent in the dressing room. Months later, though, Rueda made a point of praising his contribution, describing Rodríguez as “an excellent person and a great professional, competitive and demanding of himself, a great leader who makes himself popular.”

Rueda was replaced by Argentine coach Nestor Lorenzo — who, so far at least, has had more success than anyone for a while in turning the undoubted potential of Rodríguez into productivity. Team psychologist Marcelo Roffe thinks the problem was that the player had been “misinterpreted in some of his declarations.” In reality, he told the El Colombiano newspaper, “James is extraordinarily down to earth. Thanks to Nestor Lorenzo he is happy again in the national team, and so he is making the fans happy again.”

It could be that the solution is more tactical than psychological. It was a surprise when he was called up for the March friendlies against Spain and Romania. His 2014 midfield colleague Alexander Mejia was not impressed. “I wouldn’t have called him up,” he told Win Sports. “He hasn’t been playing regularly for Sao Paulo and there are other players who have been waiting for a chance.”

And then, in the second half against Spain and throughout the game with Romania, Rodríguez showed that he can provide something unique. Both times he was magisterial, dictating play from deep and serving as a long-range supply line for Liverpool winger Luis Díaz.

It could be that this is Nestor Lorenzo’s secret. In an otherwise very structured side, Rodríguez is left free, roaming to find pockets of space from where he can do most damage. This often means that he drops a little deeper than he used to, where it is easier for him to find space — also meaning that he is not encroaching on the room that Diaz needs to run at opposing defenses. At their best, the two can operate as one force, Rodríguez threading the passes for Diaz to run onto.

Diaz has no doubt about the esteem in which he holds his teammate. Rodríguez, he says, “is the idol of the idols. I respect him and admire him a lot.” Supporters of some of Rodríguez’s recent clubs might struggle to agree — and maybe the Copa América will force them to change their minds.

For Rodríguez, this is not just another tournament. He turns 33 two days before the final. His time at the top is limited. This Copa, then, is a chance for him to make a statement as a footballer — and to find a club willing to take him once the show is over.