Rodriguez carries Colombian dreams
It was a strike worthy of a World Cup great; the control, swivel and then audacity to sweep a sumptuous out-of-the-box left-footed volley past Uruguay's goalkeeper Fernando Muslera and send shivers of astonishment rippling around Rio de Janeiro's famous Maracana stadium.
Five minutes into the second half, there he was again, gliding into the area and flicking home a close-range finish to book Colombia into the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time. If Los Cafeteros were now at last dreaming, following decades of under-achievement and failure, it was in no small part down to a quite extraordinary talent -- that of 22-year-old James Rodriguez.
Postmatch, the eulogies flooded in. "Maradona, Messi, Suarez and James Rodriguez," Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez purred. "They do things out of the extraordinary because they are special players."
It was lofty praise from one of football's finest and most respected coaches, but there are few players who have out-gunned Rodriguez in Brazil so far. "I don't think I'm exaggerating here, but for me he's the best player at this World Cup," Tabarez concluded.
Three years ago, however, Rodriguez was just a prodigious talent flickering away in the U20 World Cup. In a bar somewhere in second city Medellin, I sat up and took note. "Write about this young man, English journalist, because one day he will be Colombia's very best," a middle-aged man opposite me slurred, his breath wreaking of stale alcohol.
A bottle of beer had just been sent crashing as Rodriguez scored a stoppage time goal against Mali to seal Colombia's place in the 2011 quarterfinals. Three days prior, and the then 20-year-old forward had again run the show with a dazzling individual display in a 4-1 Colombia win. Rodriguez had scored the opening penalty, but it was the playmaker's energy, drive and remarkable technical ability that had set him apart.
Now for the senior side and with only 26 appearances to his name, Rodriguez was again the difference.
Uruguay coach Tabarez said he had ordered his players to "limit" Rodriguez. But sometimes tactics have no answer. The 22-year-old's special goal had prized open a defence that was stubbornly digging deep. At football's highest level, the touch of a genius can decide the results of games.
At this tournament, Rodriguez has done it time and again: three-and-a-half games, five goals, three man-of-the-match awards and recognition by FIFA as the best player in the World Cup opening stage. In just four games, he's scored three goals more than Colombia's previous record.
Statistics, though, tell only half the story. The beauty in Rodriguez's performances has been in his daring attitude to try things never done before. If Colombia have roared through this World Cup and delighted spectators with their neat passing and sparkling attacking -- 11 goals in four games -- it's been Rodriguez's maturity and initiative that have effortlessly pushed them on.
"There's no pressure," the 22-year-old remarked after the game. "I'm playing well and scoring goals too, but I just want to help the team."
It speaks volumes about the strength of Rodriguez's character that he continues to shrug off the weighty expectations of a country that, prior to this tournament, had spent its entire history celebrating just three World Cup wins.
But nobody is talking about the UAE (1990), Switzerland (1994) or Tunisia (1998) victories anymore. Not even that famous 5-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires. They are talking about James Rodriguez, the young kid from Cucuta who at long last has earned Colombia a place at the very top of international football.
Carl Worswick is a British journalist who has spent the last four years living in the Colombian capital Bogota. He writes for the likes of The Blizzard, World Soccer, WSC and Fifa.com and will be in Brazil this summer writing about the Colombian national team.