The Highlights

  • In 2014, James Rodriguez had the look of a star in the making thanks to a Golden Boot at the 2014 World Cup.
  • Since then, Rodriguez hasn’t been a superstar at the club level but has played an important role with both Real Madrid and Bayern Munich
  • Even if Rodriguez isn’t a transcendent talent on the club level, that doesn’t mean the 26-year-old won’t deliver for his country at the 2018 World Cup.

Four years ago, James Rodriguez (commonly known as simply James) exploded onto the international scene. At the time he was a 22-year-old prospect with a sweet left foot. He had just transferred as part of a big-money move from Porto (Portugal) to Monaco (France), with whom he scored an impressive nine goals and contributed 13 assists. It’s safe to say Rodriguez entered the 2014 World Cup on the verge of stardom. He left it a superstar.

He carried Colombia to the quarterfinals of the tournament, scoring six times in five games (and winning the tournament’s Golden Boot award) while adding two assists. When the tournament ended, he completed his meteoric rise and transferred to Real Madrid.

The Second Act

Categorizing the last four years of Rodriguez’s career is challenging. He’s certainly been successful. He spent three seasons with Madrid and won the Champions League twice and the La Liga title once, although each season, he played a progressively smaller part. His appearances declined from 29 to 26 to 22 and his minutes dropped even more noticeably going from 2,292 to 1,517 to 1,181. Over three years Rodriguez’s time on the field basically got chopped in half. But he was always effective when he was out there. His goal tallies were always strong, at 13, seven and eight, and he was always creative with 13, eight and six assists, respectively. It wasn’t so much that James wasn’t playing well as that he was the victim of a crowded Real Madrid attacking corps with Cristiano Ronaldo as its focus and stars such as Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Isco increasingly ensconced ahead of him in the rotation.

 

This year rather than try to squeeze him into the squad, Real Madrid loaned him out to Bayern Munich. There he’s played a slightly deeper midfield role, dropping back to become more of a true central midfielder rather than either an attacking midfielder or a winger like he was at Real Madrid. He’s still had to share time with a host of talented attackers with Bayern, but he has performed strongly, with six goals and 10 assists in only 1,443 minutes.

Los Cafeteros

It’s true that Rodriguez hasn’t grown into a superstar since the last World Cup. He’s turning 27 in July, well into the prime of his career, and if that leap into the stratosphere hasn’t happened for him yet, then it probably never will. But, just because he hasn’t dominated the club game doesn’t mean he can’t dominate the World Cup this summer. What has held Rodriguez back is that for whatever reason, he has never become a dominant player when surrounded by other dominant players. That’s not how things work when he plays for his country.

With Los Cafeteros, James remains the team’s unquestioned superstar. Since the last World Cup, he led the team to the quarterfinals of Copa America, where they lost to Lionel Messi and Argentina on penalties and then the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario, where they lost to eventual winners Chile. He also led them in scoring during World Cup qualifying with six goals and in assists with four.

This summer Colombia has a very fortunate draw in the group stage, but a fairly unlucky draw overall. Their group consists of Poland, Japan and Senegal, and should Colombia win they will face the second-place finisher out of a group that consists of England, Belgium, Panama and Tunisia. As it stands right now, Colombia have the eighth-highest Elo ranking in the world. England are seventh and Belgium are ninth. No matter what Colombia do, they’re likely going to face a team roughly equal to them in talent during the first knockout round. That’s the moment when Rodriguez will truly need to deliver in order for Colombia to progress.

Four years ago it appeared James Rodriguez was going to be a star. Instead he became a very important player on some of the world’s best teams. If Rodriguez has failed, it’s only in that he becomes a complementary player when he’s on the pitch alongside the best players in the game. However, he is Colombia’s centerpiece. There’s no reason to believe that James Rodriguez won’t look like a superstar again this summer in Russia. The problem is that given Colombia’s possible knockout-round opponents, even that might not be enough.


Photo: James Rodriguez playing for Colombia.