James: The Quiet Boy Who Makes His Noise On The Pitch

If you wanted to stand up the maxim about opposites attracting, then the mutual admiration between James Rodriguez and Carlos Valderrama would do the job nicely.

Valderrama was at the vanguard of a generation of mercurial Colombian footballers, so outrageously talented they could shred Argentina 5-0 in a 1993 World Cup qualifier in Buenos Aires but vulnerable to the kind of dips which had them beaten at the finals nine months later by Romania and USA.

Colombia were Copa America semi-finalists in the years either side of that 1994 World Cup.

Two months after the 1995 South American tournament, they came to Wembley for what seemed one of those friendlies destined to be forgotten before the floodlights were dimmed.

But this was a Colombia side with Faustino Asprilla at one end of the pitch and Rene Higuita at the other, sandwiching the instantly recognisable figure of Valderrama bestriding midfield.

Goalkeeper Higuita’s ‘scorpion kick’ save from a chipped Jamie Redknapp shot ensured a scoreless draw would live much longer in the memory than it had any right to.

For more than a decade, though, following his international debut in 1985, Valderrama was the undisputed icon of Colombian football.

That he should wind down his career with stop offs in hedonistic, sun-soaked Miami and Florida was a natural order of events.

Valderrama was charismatic and flamboyant. His tremendous mop of hair added to the legend but perhaps overshadowed his football, which was exceptionally good.

Those who remember the young James, meanwhile, talk of an acutely shy boy, initially with his junior teams, then as a preternaturally gifted teenager at Envigado in Colombia and Argentine club Banfield.

On the face of it, then, you might have legitimately expected James to look elsewhere for his sporting idol, even more so given his memories of Valderrama would primarily have been formed watching old match footage.

But James confirmed: “He was the one I admired most… he was a top player. I met him once, and he's a great person, someone who provided the country with a lot of joy.

“He was a very intelligent footballer who could create something out of nothing as well as score goals.”

We can surmise that James possibly longed to share Valderrama’s capacity for expressing himself off the field.

On it there were no such issues.

Some of his teammates at El Dorado swear blind they’d never heard the 13-year-old James say a word.

But it was more than a tight lip which differentiated the player from his youthful colleagues.

He made his senior debut for Envigado aged 14 – graduating emphatically ahead of time from the club’s de facto El Dorado academy.

“James is a clear product of his parents’ efforts,” said Hugo Castano, the Envigado manager who introduced Rodriguez to senior football.

“I’ve never seen a kid of that age training twice a day without complaining. The discipline he was taught was fundamental.”

One ex-colleague, Diego Norona, was on free-kicks for his team when an under-age James was promoted into the group.

“He grabbed the ball with so much conviction [when the side was awarded a free-kick] that I let him have it,” said Norona.

“Without saying a word, he curled it outside the wall and scored a stunning goal. Our usual training was to try to go over the wall, never outside the wall. We quickly understood he was special.”

So far as James’ innate quality went, the cat was out the bag even earlier than his professional debut.

He scored 13 goals in nine games at Colombia’s prestigious Pony Futbol Cup, winning the competition for the nation's standout under-13 players with Academia de Tolimense, when he was 11. James scored directly from a corner in the final.

His progress from that juncture wasn’t advancing fast enough, in the opinion of mum Maria and step dad Juan Carlos, despite James' part in an Envigado team which won promotion into its country’s top division.

The upshot of this restlessness was a move to Argentina and Banfield for Rodriguez, leaving behind facilities described by Edgar Ramirez, manager when the player exited Envigado, as: “No grass, just sand and dust that in bad days was flying all over us.”

James went alone to Argentina as a 16-year-old, having been accompanied by his mother and step-father to Medellin when Envigado took James following his star turn at that Pony Futbol Cup.

“It was hard, obviously, but when you want to be somebody in life, you must go and make some sacrifices,” James has said.

The player has recalled how he would run out of coins when he phoned home, dead air replacing his mother’s voice.

James experienced homesickness but with a maturity which belied his tender years was able to park off-field concerns where his football was concerned.

Indeed, he’d have had plenty of news to relay in those snatched conversations with family situated more than 4,000 miles north in South America.

Castano reckons James' two years in Buenos Aires doubled up as his “true school”, rounding the player and the person before transferring to Europe.

When he opted to join Porto in 2010, days before his 19th birthday, James had one Argentinian championship medal – Banfield’s first title, won in 2009 – and a healthy dose of football in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League equivalent.

He had scored nine goals in his second season, adding to the one against Rosario Central the previous campaign which made him the youngest foreigner at 17 to score in Argentina’s Primera Division.

It was his original choice of destination in Europe and a subsequent move to Monaco – living in opulent Monte Carlo for a year he resisted the spotlight Valderrrama would have enjoyed, “Every day after training at Monaco he still practises his skills again and again when he gets home,” related a media confidant in James' homeland – which perhaps suppressed the player’s profile on this continent.

Certainly, his numbers warranted attention well in advance of 2014 World Cup which changed James' life.

He was directly involved in 53 goals – scoring 25 – in 65 league appearances (49 starts) for Porto.

In his first campaign with the club he was a treble winner, adding the Europa League and Portuguese Cup – James scored a hat-trick in the 6-2 domestic final victory over Vitoria SC – to the league title Porto would retain in the subsequent two campaigns.

James was Portugal’s player of the season in 2011/12 and there was more individual acclaim with Monaco after moving in 2013.

In his solitary campaign in the Principality James' nine goals and 13 assists in 34 Ligue 1 appearances secured his position in the division’s team of the season, in addition to player-of-the-year honours for his club.

James' list of admirers was swelling. He was 22, fearless, and flushed with a confidence born of excelling on every domestic and continental platform.

A safe bet, then.

That 2014 World Cup, where Rodriguez’s six goals won him the tournament’s Golden Boot, counter-intuitively, reduced his number of suitors.

He had excelled to such a degree only a handful of clubs could afford to meet Monaco’s fast-climbing fee.

James' goal in a last-16 tie with Uruguay – voted the best in the competition – more readily leaps to mind than the one scored by Mario Gotze to win the final for Germany.

Gotze, an attacking midfielder, like James, found recreating his World Cup high a very difficult task. He scored intermittently the following season for Bayern Munich but after one more campaign was transferred back to first club Borussia Dortmund.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, went to Real Madrid after the Spaniards stumped up a reported £71m, content to pay Monaco's World Cup premium.

The revelation of the World Cup – his stupendous strike against Uruguay, when he chested a forward ball and in one balletic movement spun and crashed a volley into the roof of the net from 25 yards, would win FIFIA’s Puskas Award for the “most beautiful” goal of the calendar year – he gracefully shrugged off a ginormous weight of expectation to shine in his first season at the Bernabeu.

Carlo Ancelotti, who signed the player for Madrid, duly recognised what he had on his hands.

And he’s never forgotten.

Not the 13 goals and 13 assists in 29 La Liga matches, nor the work ethic which can be traced back to James augmenting his development with Envigado by attending private training sessions with distinguished coach Omar Suarez.

Ancelotti, then, moved briskly when he detected an opportunity to acquire the player for Bayern Munich in summer 2017.

Meantime, James had scored 15 times and created 14 goals in 48 La Liga games across two seasons for Real Madrid – figures which scan even more impressively extrapolated as 29 direct goal involvements from 30 starts.

His medal cabinet had swelled after successive Champions League titles and, in a heady 2016/17, La Liga, Club World Cup and UEFA Super Cup honours to add to that campaign’s European trophy.

“Signing James Rodríguez was our coach Carlo Ancelotti’s biggest wish, following their successful spell working together in Madrid,” confirmed Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

Little wonder.

It would ultimately be Jupp Heynckes profiting from Ancelotti’s direct line to James.

Heynckes succeeded Ancelotti in Munich in October 2017 and, with James following early influential performances by metronomically producing his familiar numbers, described the player as a “godsend”.

James was included in both the Bundesliga team of the season and Champions League squad of the season after Bayern claimed the German title and reached the last four of the European competition in 2017/18.

He contributed to 11 Bundesliga goals the following term – adding to the 18 in which he had a direct hand the previous season – as Bayern retained their championship, before claiming a spot in the 2019 Copa America team of the tournament following Colombia’s quarter-final effort.

Valderrama was named the South American competition’s Most Valuable Player 32 years earlier.

In every other respect, though, James’s achievements shout the loudest, the taciturn boy from Cucuta, the home city he quit to move west to Medellin when still in short trousers, making all his noise on the pitch.

“James Rodríguez will be the next big star, not just now but for the next 10 years,” Valderrama commented as his countryman’s profile rocketed during his 2014 World Cup tour de force.

“He is unique. He’s got more passion than any player I’ve ever seen.

“He has the potential to be the greatest Colombian player ever, and possibly one of the best ever to play the game.”

Valderrama, whose Colombian caps record of 111 could conceivably come under threat from James, currently on 76 and 12 goals behind top-scorer Radamel Falcao’s 34, revisited the topic of the heir to his throne in 2017.

“I don’t think there cannot be anyone like me,” asserted Valderrama.

“There is James.

“He is very good and one of the best in the world. Why can he not become the greatest?”