Spotlight on the World Cup's hottest property
It was late September 2009 and a man working for a good-sized European club was on a scouting trip to Argentina, up in Rosario, near the birthplace of Lionel Messi. (In a minute, it will be obvious why he'd rather not be identified.)
"I was there to check out two players from Rosario Central -- one was Guillermo Burdisso, a defender, brother of Nicolas; the other was a forward named Emilio Zelaya," he recalled recently.
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"My club knew I was going to watch them play against Banfield and the day before the match, they told me an intermediary was bugging them about an 18-year-old Colombian kid who had been starting for them and looked promising: James Rodriguez. I don't remember the asking price but I doubt it was more than a million, maybe two. Our local scout in Argentina also raved about him. So they asked for a report."
"I noticed a bunch of familiar faces -- fellow scouts -- at the game," he added. "When I first saw him, it struck me that he was 18 but looked about 12. You could tell he had ability but he seemed to move in slow motion, almost sluggish.
"The manager took him off after an hour. I was unimpressed and my report was hardly a glowing endorsement. I just thought he's the classic player who'd get eaten alive in Europe, lacking the strength and athleticism to play in a top league. Most of all, he looked lazy and as if he lacked personality. I said he was a long-term project who might never pan out. Maybe someone worth spending a few hundred thousand on but that's it. And so we passed on him. I still laugh about it today ... how wrong I was!"
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Indeed, the kid who "could not cut it in Europe" is now the leading goal scorer in the World Cup. He has not one but two goal-of-the-tournament contenders. One came against Japan when he burst into the box, put a defender on his side with the football equivalent of an ankle-breaking crossover and then beat the keeper with a deft, elegant chip. The other was the icebreaker against Uruguay when he controlled the ball on his chest and in one fluid, continuous motion, turned and smacked the ball off the underside of the crossbar 30 yards away and into the net.
At club level, of course, he has already won three league titles and a Europa League with Porto. This past year he helped newly promoted Monaco finish second in Ligue 1. He moved to the principality for the more-than-princely sum of 60 million dollars last summer. Oh, and he's still 22 -- his birthday isn't until the day before the World Cup final.
The irony is that back in the fall, many were wondering whether he wasn't something of a bust. His first goal only came at the end of November. The manager, Claudio Ranieri, seemed reluctant to play him for the simple fact that he didn't always pull his weight defensively in what was already a top-heavy lineup. Even at Porto, he had blown hot and cold.
Then came the injury to Radamel Falcao. Ranieri switched to a diamond formation, put Rodriguez at its tip and the Colombian was away to the races. Six goals and a smattering of assists in the final two months of the campaign helped Monaco secure second place. And once it was clinched, Rodriguez showed another side to his personality.
He politely asked Ranieri whether he could take the final two weeks of the season off. Why? Because he really wanted to do well in the World Cup and he wanted to take on extra training. In fact, at a time when a lot of players start taking their summer holidays early by lazing on the pitch, he wanted to put himself through a mini preseason boot camp. And he feared that while it would benefit him come July, it might be so punishing that it would hurt his performance with Monaco in the final two games of the campaign.
How could a manager say "no" to that?
Rodriguez put himself through grueling two-a-days with a personal trainer he hired at his own expense. The payoff is what you see now. A young superstar bursting with confidence, powering this Colombia side into the quarterfinal.
The aforementioned scout was right. Rodriguez doesn't rely on athleticism and pace, which may be why he worked primarily on his fitness in those final two weeks. Instead, his trump cards are technical ability and vision. He simply sees things others don't -- few players in the world would even attempt that control-and-volley he uncorked against the Uruguayans -- and has the skills to execute almost at will.
He benefits from the fact that this Colombia team seems built for his skill set. Ahead of him, Teo Gutierrez clears space with intelligent runs. On one side, Juan Cuadrado beguiles defenders with his fancy footwork before leaving them for dead with his blistering pace. On the other, Jackson Martinez pounds the flank, flattening the opposition as he creates pockets of space.
Neymar and Lionel Messi may be the most talked-about stars at this World Cup but -- guess what? -- the script has yet to be completed. An early exit for Brazil, a stumble from Argentina, and Colombia could well go all the way to the final. And at that point, if Rodriguez's level doesn't drop, this could be remembered as his World Cup.
One thing appears certain: he won't be at Monaco for too long. Another year, probably, because they've qualified for the Champions League and it looks as if Falcao will be the one to depart. But after that, expect him to be on the move again. As part of "super agent" Jorge Mendes' stable, he'll likely be able to choose his destination. The odds are it will be for considerably more than the 60 million Monaco shelled out to secure him in the first place.
Somewhere out there there's a club cursing the scout mentioned at the top of this column.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.