Thursday, 3 July 2014

In the court of King James: abandoned by his dad, spotted by a villain… and a hero to all in Colombia

Now we've heard of him: James Rodriguez
BARELY halfway through the World Cup and a star has been born. Forget Neymar, Messi and Muller, it’s James they’re all talking about. On Friday night in the quarter-final showdown between Colombia and Brazil he might be the only name in town.

The first man to five goals in the chase for the Golden Boot, James David Rodríguez Rubio is far too complicated a name for modern football fans. They call him James. Actually, it’s Hamez for Spanish-speaking Colombia fans.

And emerging from the shadow of their better-known striker Radamel Falcao, the Americans are now dubbing him J-Rod after their famous baseballer.

When injury forced Falcao out of the 2014 World Cup, most expected the Colombians, feisty Latin American outsiders, to struggle on the goal front. But from BEFORE the tournament even started, Rodriguez stepped up and started banging them in on behalf of his crocked Monaco team-mate.

In pre-tournament friendlies against Senegal and Jordan, the 22-year-old started his incredible streak. Then, as Group C burst upon us, Rodriguez produced goal after goal, scoring in his first four World Cup games to equal the record held by Brazilian greats Ronaldo and Rivaldo.

Goal of the tournament? James' first against Uruguay
One in the 3-0 win over Greece, one to break Ivorian hearts, a cracker against Japan and then TWO in the last 16 clash against Uruguay on Saturday night. SEVEN goals in SIX games. Incredible in the world of modern international football. And the first against Uruguay was an absolute classic, possibly the best of an incredible World Cup so far. Brought it down with a superb first touch, half-volleyed the ball home from outside the box.

Breath-taking stuff. So good, in fact, it prompted Colombia’s greatest footballing hero (he of the massive hair) Carlos Valderrama to ooze modestly: ''For a long time in Colombia they have been looking for the next Carlos Valderrama and they've now finally found who that player is. And he will be a hero not just now but for the next 10 years.''

But some have known about this baby-faced assassin for years. At the tender age of 15, he banged in nine goals for local Colombian outfit Envigado. He was shifted quickly to Argentine side Banfield, where he earned the nickname “James Bond” and then he was swept off to Europe, where he scored 25 goals in 63 games for Porto.

Though part-owned (like Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano from Argentina) by a third-party, Rodriguez finally gained freedom with a high profile move to moneybags principality Monte Carlo and AC Monaco.

Nine goals in 34 games hardly justify the ludicrous £38.5m (R750m) price Monaco paid for him but with Falcao linked with a return to Madrid – he left Atletico but may return to Real – Rodriguez clearly thrives in the absence of his countryman.

It’s not always been an easy ride for “Hamez”. He was abandoned by his father – a former professional footballer - at the age of three and raised by his mum, Pilar.

And it was the late Gustavo Upegui Lopez, a businessman with suspected ties to Medellín’s drug cartels and vigilante death squads, who engineered his first professional move to Envigado rather than to Tolima, where his father played.

He was married at 19 – to Daniela, sister of Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina – and has a daughter, Salome. From 12, when he scored a goal direct from a corner on national television, he dreamed of being “the new El Pibe (Valderrama) and winner of the Ballon d’Or.

There were times, those early years in Porto and the opening weeks in Monte Carlo, when the dream seemed distant and improbable. He was seen as too slight, not physical enough. Two weeks in Brazil have changed that. Forever.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

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  1. One to watch for the Future. He will give Brazil headaches.

  2. I wish James or Hamez and his hard working teammates could these Brazilians packing, how I wish for Underdogs Final with all De favourites watching like us on TV, knowing dat might be a dream to far like Khune dreaming to be Ochoa, ill settle for de Arg triumph. The little man can lift Dat trophy while Ronaldo is having a hair cut at a local barber. But I wamnq see Brazilians tears tonight, they are not convincing and de refreees are always on their side

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