The bus carrying Real Madrid’s A-list players rolled into Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena, greeted by thousands of eager Madrid fans who had come to see the Men in White book their place in the Champions League final. Chants of “Cristiano, Cristiano” and “Ramos, Ramos” tuned the German air, with one onlooker particularly fascinated by the grandeur of the occasion.
James Rodríguez had some spare time on his hands, having been granted a few days off from his day job in Monaco, so he trekked across Europe to watch the club he says he’s dreamed of playing for since he was a boy. As he listened to the adulation afforded to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos, he fantasized about what it would be like stepping off that Madrid bus and going to battle against Bayern – of being one of those the Men in White.
What a difference a year can make. On Tuesday morning, James sat in front of the gathered press at El Real’s Valdebebas training ground and talked up his Real Madrid side’s chances of coming from behind to knock Juventus out of the Champions League. Not only will he be stepping off the team bus outside the Bernabéu on Wednesday evening, he’ll also be central to Carlo Ancelotti’s team’s chances of making its second straight Champions League final.
There are elements of his journey to Madrid which are interesting, but ultimately this isn’t a Hollywood rags to riches story. At the age of 14, he made his debut for Envigado in the Colombian league and, via Argentine side Banfield, soon took the same boat across the Atlantic Ocean to Porto which so many South American players have taken before.
But it was at the World Cup last summer where James showed he had true 007 quality — The Times of India ran the headline: “The name’s Bond, James Rodríguez” (he was supposedly named after the fictional spy). He was the top scorer at the tournament in Brazil, scored the best goal (a beauty against Uruguay, below) and was, for many, the true star of soccer’s biggest show, even if Lionel Messi was bizarrely named MVP.
Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez had previously given a quizzical look to reporters who had asked him who would be the next galáctico signing, as if to suggest there was nobody with the profile required to be given that tag. Luis Suárez was one option, but he was tied up by Barcelona, but then James turned up.
Madrid says it was already interested before his star quality unravelled at the World Cup, which is not hard to believe given Monaco had paid 45 million euros to Porto for him the year before. Any player going for that sum is bound to interest Europe’s biggest clubs. What is obvious, though, is that James’ performances for his country accelerated any move to the Spanish capital that may or may have not been in the works.
Pérez was soon drawing 80 million euros out of the club’s accounts, and James secured the move he had been dreaming about since he was an 11-year-old, Carlos Valderrama-adoring child.
Given there wasn’t a dry eye when images of a teary James were broadcast after Colombia was eliminated from the World Cup by Brazil, a surprising amount of cynicism greeted his move from one mega-rich club to another. Should we have mentioned Jorge Mendes, the super-agent so adept at delivering his clients to the Bernabéu, was pulling the transfer’s stings?
James was a commercial signing, brought into buffer Madrid’s coiffeurs and to help them tap into the Colombian market, they said. Some reports even claimed after he’d signed on the dotted line, 345,000 jerseys carrying his name were sold, although adidas later confirmed that was a ridiculous estimate. Still, the commercial theory lived on.
Fernando Carrillo, the Colombian ambassador in Spain, hailed the importance of the signing for Colombia, while both Carillo and Pérez talked up the links between James and Alfredo Di Stéfano — despite being Argentine, Madrid’s greatest ever player spent time playing in Colombia. Almost 45,000 Madrid fans and Colombian ex-pats turned up at the Bernabéu to watch James do the customary kick ups in his shiny new No. 10 shirt on the pitch.
Of course, there is a certain glamorous aspect to James (he was Google’s most searched athlete in 2014), but that is also something which can be said of many footballers these days — blame David Beckham. But as James sat in front of the press on Tuesday, it was hard to see anything other than a bushy-tailed, bright-eyed 23-year-old who really is living his dream. At times he stuttered, clearly nervous, as he spoke about his ambitions of reaching the Champions League final with Madrid, but underneath all that is one of Madrid’s finest players.
That status wasn’t so evident earlier this year, but sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. That has certainly proved the case with both James and Luka Modric this season. Los Blancos wobbled without the duo in February and March, with the former returning for the 9-1 devastation or poor old Granada. In the 10 matches he’s played since he’s returned, he has scored four goals and created five more. In all, in his first season in Spain, James has contributed 16 goals and 15 assists. If only all commercial signings could be this good (no names).
Beneath the numbers, his versatility has allowed Ancelotti to flick between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 formation, with James looking at home in either, through the middle or out wide. He admits he prefers to play centrally and he leans towards the 4-4-2 shape, but you can hardly imagine him throwing a fit if he’s asked to do a different job for the good of the team (again, no names). As has also been the case with fellow midfielder Isco, his flexibility has been one of the biggest boosts for Madrid this season.
Married at 19 to Daniela Ospina, Arsenal and Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina’s sister, there remains something quite innocent about James. Despite being abandoned by his dad when he was younger, moving away from his family to Argentina when he was a teenager and then wandering to Europe a few years later, he’s maintained a youthful exuberance that draws fans in, whether on the soccer field or magazine covers touting his appeal.
He admits he always knew he had the talent, but he’s had to work hard, too, and he says luck has contributed to his rise. Unfortunately he won’t be lucky enough to have a few days off to watch Real Madrid’s Champions League semifinal this year. Instead, he’ll be stepping off the bus as one of the club’s key players, presumably with a pair of Beats by Dre headphones on, getting ready for one of the biggest nights of his career.