Coming into the 2014 World Cup, the biggest question would be which world-renowned star finally grabbed hold of the brass ring on the biggest stage in soccer.
Would it be the best player in the world – Lionel Messi. A player who has set records for Barcelona, yet failed to produce his absolute best for Argentina in the way Diego Maradona did. Messi has certainly had his best showing for Argentina in a major tournament with 4 goals in 4 games and 4 Man of the Match Awards.
Would it be the other player so often labeled as either 1 or 1A in the “best player in the world” discussion, Cristiano Ronaldo. As it turned out, Ronaldo’s Portugal were eliminated and the leading man was obviously slowed down by injury.
Would it be Luis Suarez of Uruguay? Well, he has been a headliner… but for the wrong reasons.
Would it be the biggest star for the best team playing in their home country – Neymar? The Barcelona man has certainly had flashes of brilliance, scoring 4 goals thus far himself, but Brazil have uncharacteristically sputtered, needing a penalty shootout to get past Chile in the Round of 16.
Those players have all had their moments, but there’s only one clear option as to who the leading man of the 2014 World Cup has been – Colombia’s James Rodriguez.
Entering the tournament, the only thing on anyone’s mind regarding Colombia was how they would fare without star striker Radamel Falcao. The #9 has been one of the best players in the world over the last 2 years and with a knee injury knocking him out of the World Cup, the consensus was that Colombia’s outside hopes at winning the tournament on their home continent would go with them. He was Colombia’s leading scorer in qualifying with 9 goals and the narrative on Los Cafeteros was that they would struggle to score goals without him.
Enter Falcao’s club teammate at Monaco, James.
Rodriguez was on the short list of potential breakout players at the 2014 World Cup, but anyone saying they projected this kind of transformational performance is either the world’s greatest soothsayer or a terrible liar.
The 22 year old didn’t come out of nowhere – he was named the best player in the Portugese League in 2012 and Monaco payed a hefty 8 figure transfer fee for him in 2013. He was the leading assist man in Ligue 1 this year as well. But he’s not just taken his game to the next level in Brazil, he’s taken it into the highest stratospheres.
Rodriguez has been the catalyst, the talisman, and the heart and soul of the World Cup’s darling team. Colombia has played some eye-catching football throughout the tournament and their 9 goals was second in the group stage behind the Netherlands. Rodriguez hasn’t just shown his ability to set up goals playing in the classic #10 role, he’s scored them as well. Entering today’s quarterfinal against Brazil, Rodriguez is the tournament’s top scorer with 5 goals – ahead of Messi, Neymar, and everyone else.
The goals haven’t been simple tap-ins or finishes from the penalty spot. His first against Uruguay is the current frontrunner for Goal of the Tournament.
— Alan Brazil (@sportsbreakfast) July 3, 2014
It’s not just Rodriguez’s scoring though. This field level view shows his intelligent movement between the lines attempting to find the open space necessary to fire off his long range shot. Without Falcao, Rodriguez has taken both creative and finishing responsibilities with great aplomb.
While the Uruguay goal has gotten all the love, this goal against Japan shows off his array of on-the-ball skills and feather touch that rivals that of Messi. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who can cheekily chip the keeper like this.
— Jan Michael Yap (@jmcyap) June 29, 2014
Watching Colombia and Rodriguez has been a real joy at this year’s World Cup. After the more negative aspects of 2010′s play (especially in the Netherlands-Spain Final) the entire tournament has been a breath of fresh air this year, led by the newest and brightest star of the show. But now comes the biggest test for Rodriguez. The one that will decide whether his 2014 World Cup will go down in history alongside the likes of Pele in ’58 or Maradona in ’86 – a quarterfinal date against the host nation Brazil.
Brazil-Colombia may be the game of the tournament. There is no team playing better football than Colombia and although Brazil started the World Cup as favorites playing at home, they are certainly vulnerable. In fact, based on their play in the tournament thus far alone, Colombia might quite rightly be considered favorites. It should (although it’s never a guarantee in the knockout stages of any tournament) be a fascinating and open contest with plenty of goalscoring opportunities. There’s just too much talent on the field for it not to happen. Rodriguez will undoubtedly have his chances, the question is whether or not he can continue to seize the moment.
If Rodriguez and Colombia lose to Brazil they will go down as a mere footnote in World Cup history. Perhaps James will move to a bigger European club and this is just the beginning for him, or perhaps he’ll be another shooting star that burns out after a bright flash. It’s impossible to tell at this point.
Sometimes you only get one chance on the biggest stage of all, though. If Rodriguez can lead Colombia to their most famous victory over the host nation, what’s stopping them from their first World Cup triumph? What’s to stop Rodriguez from vaulting over Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez, and Neymar as the definitive best player in the world. He’s certainly earned that mantle to this point in the 2014 World Cup, now it’s up to Rodriguez and Colombia to finish what they’ve started.