Memory is such a subjective, arbitrary and unreliable tool for pinpointing decisive moments – especially in soccer, a landscape awash with emotion. As such, identifying the exact point at which James Rodriguez became a bigger star than Radamel Falcao is complicated, but it almost certainly didn’t happen when you think it did.
Most will assume – and not unreasonably — that it was during the 2014 World Cup, with lack of fitness reducing the iconic No. 9 to the role of magnanimous spectator while James (in Portugal he became defined simply by his first name, as is often the custom) conducted Colombia’s orchestra, joining the fabled pantheon of left-footed masterminds dictating the tournament while the world sat slack-jawed in awe.
The images of James that we recall from Brazil are persuasive, from his opening night recital against Greece, through his emphatic brace to dump out Uruguay in the Maracanã right up to his refusal to be cowed by Brazil’s hatchet men during noble – and painful – defeat in Fortaleza.
They are the sorts of feats that define a career, and in rapidly accelerating James’ move to Real Madrid, they did so in more ways than one. Yet if this was a crescendo of an irresistible talent, the ground was set for it for a while, and not only by absence of Falcao, widely thought of as the world’s greatest ‘out-and-out’ No. 9.
That scenario, and the sense that Colombia coach José Pekerman would have a sizable vacuum to fill in Brazil, loomed large from the moment in January when Falcao sustained a cruciate knee ligament injury in a challenge with Soner Ertek, a teacher and part-time player, in a Coupe de France match with amateur side Chasselay. Undoubtedly, Brazil should have been Falcao’s moment. Five-and-a-half years older than James, he may not have had the creative genius to bend games to his will as his Monaco club colleague did, but El Tigre had the charisma and the ubiquitous goal threat to mark the World Cup in a similar way.
Ultimately, that these two World Cup ships passed in the night, rather than propelled Colombia to who knows what as a dynamic duo, could be an allegory for their shared destiny to date — an involvement without genuine interaction. The pair initially crossed paths at Porto where, having arrived in July 2010, the younger Colombian was slowly bedded in rather than an instant success, as is often the case with even the brightest imports on that well-trodden road from South America to the Estádio do Dragão.
The records will tell us that James made his contribution to that astonishing season under André Villas-Boas, smashing a hat trick in the Taça de Portugal final win over Vitória Guimarães. It was representative of his season, however, in which he had sporadically provided window dressing to a winning machine. Falcao, meanwhile, had hit 38 goals in just 42 games across all competitions. They shared the same space from time to time but developed no real complicity.
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By the time James began to establish himself as a regular in the following season, under Villas-Boas’ erstwhile assistant Vítor Pereira, Falcao was Dragão history, having made an apparently curious sideways move to Atlético Madrid, in a transfer authored (and apparently part-financed) by his agent, Jorge Mendes.
Yet while James’ star began to soar in Portugal, it was also the period in which Falcao started to flourish from goalscorer to genius. Atleti’s staff and fans, spoiled by five years of service from the incomparable Sergio Agüero, were underwhelmed by Kun’s star replacement. The new man was ‘just’ a goalscorer, blessed with a prodigious leap and enviable instincts in the penalty box but incapable of dropping deep, starting moves and committing defenders. He was dependent on service.
Falcao’s evolution started here. The subject of dissatisfaction at the start of the campaign, he was fully growing into what was expected of him by the end of it. His opener in May 2012’s Europa League final against Athletic Bilbao would have been difficult to conceive in Porto’s own triumph 12 months before, as Falcao furrowed from deep before finishing in style.
That Atlético period could, and perhaps should have laid the foundations for a future dream partnership with James, as the midfielder became the Portuguese Liga’s best player in Falcao’s (and later Hulk’s) absence.
Monaco was both the moment that they came together again and the point at which the road decisively forked. The hand of über-agent Mendes was clearly visible in both deals; after months of both players being linked with the very biggest names in the European game, the announcement of James’ arrival on Le Rocher was made on May 24, 2014, with Falcao’s signing announced exactly a week later.
Fatefully, it was the younger, ostensibly less combative man who adapted much better to his new surroundings. Falcao’s second game for Monaco, a July friendly against Augsburg, roadmapped future difficulties as he lost his temper and confronted Paul Verhaegh, André Hahn and company, protesting against what he perceived to be overly-physical tactics. Ligue 1 was always going to have more of the same in store, and Falcao never totally fit into Monaco’s plan. James, displaying the mettle he would later show the world in Fortaleza, earned the right to star in his favored No. 10 role and ended his solitary season in Monaco as the league’s top assist giver. This was a player to bloom in any environment.
Now on loan at Manchester United, El Tigre may well recover to roar again, but there is no doubting the player in which Colombia’s heart beats strongest, for now at least.