Colombia’s James Rodriguez inspirational as ever in Copa América

GLENDALE, Arizona — Big tournaments always throw out a few surprises. Unheralded teams come to the fore. Previously unknown players make their mark. Perhaps an aging veteran can fool Father Time once more and summon up one last hurrah.

In the 2024 Copa America, the continued renaissance of Colombia playmaker James Rodríguez qualifies as a wonder. His one-goal, two assist performance on Saturday catapulted his country past Panama 5-0 and into the Copa América semifinals.

In some respects, that Rodriguez is lighting up an international tournament shouldn’t be news. This is a man who burst onto the scene at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with a tournament-high six goals, leading the Cafeteros to the quarterfinals. His chest-trap-and-volley to score the opening goal against Uruguay in the Round of 16 remains etched in the memory. The man’s talent is obvious.

But there is another aspect to Rodriguez’s performances in this tournament that has been confounding. Ever since that breakout performance, Rodriguez’s club career has been in a downward spiral. His move to Real Madrid saw a steady erosion in playing time. The same was true during a two-year spell with Bayern Munich. And then step by step, he seemed to moving down the rungs of the club game — Everton, Al Rayyan, Olympiacos, and now São Paulo in Brazil — where he’s played but 22 games over the past year, and already seems surplus to requirements.

Yet something happens when Rodriguez pulls on a Colombia shirt. He was already sitting on three assists in this tournament when he got to work against the Canaleros, delivering an inch-perfect delivery from a corner for defender Jhon Córdoba to nod home in the eighth minute. Rodriguez found the net himself from a 15th-minute penalty after Colombia midfielder Jhon Arias was upended by Panama keeper Orlando Mosquera.

Rodriguez’s most inspired moment came just four minutes before halftime. Noticing that the Panamanian defense was standing flat-footed, he took a quick free kick over the top of the defense that found Luis Díaz in the clear, and the Liverpool man then delivered a superb lofted finish four yards outside the penalty area to extend Colombia’s lead. When Rodriguez exited the match in the 73rd minute, it was to a standing ovation, with the midfielder applauding the fans back.

“I always try to help my teammates so that they can play well and I congratulate them for playing well,” Rodriguez said via a translator. He added, “We’re all going through a good moment. We’re doing goals from set pieces, from penalties and planned plays which is a good thing.”

When asked if he’s been the best player at the Copa América, Rodriguez said, “There’s still a lot of time. There’s two games left with what we want to achieve and all I want to do is win, so there’s a lot left.”

There is a temptation to simply write off Rodriguez’s performance as coming against an overmatched opponent. It was after all Colombia’s biggest margin of victory ever in a Copa América match. But try telling that to the U.S. men’s national team, who fell to Panama in the group stage. While the talent gap between the two teams on this day was clear, a team with that edge is still obligated to use it to its full advantage, and that’s what Rodriguez and the rest of his teammates did.

It still begs the question as to why Rodriguez can excel for his country but not for his club. For Colombia manager Nestor Lorenzo, there’s no mystery as to why Rodriguez is hitting top form in this tournament.

“He’s a good player,” Lorenzo said simply about Rodriguez. “He’s a player that is happy inside the field. The coach just sees how to put him [on the field so he can] enjoy.”

It certainly helps that Rodriguez has been given largely a free role in the team, allowing him to move side to side, or even deep into midfield to find space. More importantly, his teammates seem plenty willing to work for him. That kind of balance in the side — of not just ability, but of ego and responsibility — is something that Lorenzo appreciates. He senses it in this team too.

“Football is an 11-player game and sometimes 10 have to play for that one player and they have to be willing to do that,” he said. “But each of those 11 players have to play for their teammates, for the other 10. And that is what this team is showing, great attitude and giving their all for their teammates. That has been apparent from minute one.”

There is also something to be said about finding calmness in an environment different from what is happening with Rodriguez’s club. He certainly isn’t the first player to use a national team as a refuge. But Lorenzo was quick to deflect credit for the psychological state of Rodriguez and his teammates.

“I wouldn’t know how to measure that with the coaching staff,” he said in reference to the team’s morale, with the help of a translator. “We are continuously [emphasizing] how important it’s to play for your national team, to wear your jersey. And I think it’s something to take to heart that makes you proud.

“That is on the side of the players. I think we don’t have a lot of influence in that sense. We can show some leadership, and if the players are committed in this way, it is because they love their jersey and they are very happy being here.”

Regardless of the how or the why, that Rodriguez is finding joy on the field again is clear, and his performance on Saturday put him in some select company. He’s now tied with Lionel Messi for the most assists in a single Copa América since 2011 (a period that spans five tournaments) with five.

His eight assists over that period are second only to Messi’s 17. Rodríguez’s 10 goal contributions (three goals, seven assists) over the last five Copa América tournaments tie Ángel Di María, Alexis Sánchez and Paolo Guerrero for the third-most goal contributions in that span behind Eduardo Vargas‘ 14 and Messi’s 25.

Now Colombia finds itself in the semifinals of the Copa América for the third time in the last four editions. But it is at this stage that the Cafeteros usually stumble. Two early goals conceded in the semifinals against Chile eliminated Colombia back in 2016, when Lorenzo just so happened to be an assistant coach on Colombia’s staff. A penalty shootout defeat to Argentina five years later caused even more angst. It has also been 23 long years since Colombia claimed its only Copa América, a tournament that it hosted.

It is that history, which explains why Rodriguez is taking nothing for granted. “We’re doing all our best so we can win. We have the hardest matches left,” said.

If Rodriguez can keep up his current form, those challenges will become a lot easier.