James Rodriguez's long Real Madrid farewell culminated in Cardiff
When James Rodriguez left the Bernabeu pitch in the 61st minute of Real Madrid's 4-1 victory over Sevilla on May 14, the Colombia midfielder poignantly turned to all four corners of the stadium and applauded. His gesture met with reciprocation from the stands in tacit acknowledgement that it would be the last time.
Rafa Benitez lasted less than half a season as coach at Real Madrid chiefly because he was an acolyte to the dying remnants of the Galactico era. In part, James was tainted by association. After recovering from a muscle injury that sidelined him for much of Benitez's brief reign, James was thrown back into action half-fit in the 4-0 Clasico defeat in November 2015 that would accelerate the coach's downfall. James lasted 56 minutes, being hauled off after Barca rattled in their third to be replaced by Isco in a sign of things to come.
Zinedine Zidane contemplated the gospel according to James when he took over as coach but decided to turn the page. Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos became Zidane's first-choice midfield while Lucas Vazquez and Isco emerged as challengers to James' position when any opening arose across the front six.
This season James' situation has deteriorated to the point that his place at the Bernabeu is no longer tenable. He neither fits Zidane's playing system nor his policy of rotation. Senior players have found it easier to swallow, particularly Cristiano Ronaldo, who has praised Zidane for his incredible late-season form. Younger players coming through are happy to be there at all. Isco and James fell somewhere in between and the Malagueno won that battle.
Europe's elite competition provides the most accurate gauge of James' standing under Zidane; the Colombian spent the vast majority of the knockout stages of the Champions League sitting, featuring for just 83 minutes in 2017 with 76 of those coming in the first leg of the last 16 tie against Napoli. James was awarded seven minutes against Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena and warmed the bench from there on until the final ignominy of being left out of the squad entirely in the final at Cardiff.
It is hard to picture Zidane as a malicious manager and the decision was likely a technical one, based on the prospect of a potential 120 minutes against Europe's finest defence. But the fact remains that Vazquez, who also didn't make the cut, was the more surprising omission. The former canterano, brought back from Espanyol for a fee of €1 million, has become a more valuable squad player than James.
Keeping a World Cup Golden Boot winner on side was always an impractical assignment for Zidane once he decided James didn't fit his bill. For country and at previous clubs James became accustomed to being the star, but he arrived at the Bernabeu as the last massive outlay sanctioned by Florentino Perez. Benitez may have been blinded by the light but Zidane's aura proved immune.
That is not to say that James' Bernabeu spell has been completely without merit. In his first season, under Carlo Ancelotti, he racked up 17 goals and 18 assists in all competitions, two of the latter providing the ammunition for Real's two strikes in the 2014-15 Champions League semifinal defeat against Juventus.
But this season has felt like a long farewell, James, 25, being occasionally paraded around as a rock star going through his greatest hits as he fades into the night. It was perhaps fitting that what will be surely be his last interaction with Real fans was delivered on stage, in full kit, in celebration of a title he barely contributed to.
James is a football artist, capable of the sublime when he is in the spotlight, but he is not cut out as a backup singer. His four assists against Cultural in the Copa were a highlight, but even a potentially game-saving goal four minutes after coming off the bench in April's Clasico was overshadowed by Leo Messi's encore.
The time has come for James to seek his fortune elsewhere and there will be no shortage of suitors for a 25-year-old with the handy addition of being one of the most marketable footballers on the planet. Real received an offer of €80 million from Inter last summer and accepted. James refused, sealing his own fate.
With their new-found wealth, the dormant Serie A giants have reportedly been back, with an opening offer of half that amount, but helping to revive the fortunes of one of the Milan sides might be an appealing challenge.
In any case it is to be hoped James finds a team where he can display his talent and that Real Madrid facilitate an amicable parting of ways. The Colombian has not been entirely placid during his annus horribilis but he has hardly pouted more than others when the bench slippers have been on the other foot. He has also provided the Bernabeu with some memories to cherish and that should be his legacy, rather than a steady slide down the ladder at the most demanding club in the world.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.