Colombian kid Rodriguez the main man in Brazil
A good job too, as a decade on at the World Cup the attacking midfielder’s stunning strikes and terrific displays have made him among the hottest footballing properties on the planet.
His rise has been meteoric. With barely a hair on his chiselled chin the 22-year old has won league titles in Argentina and Portugal and last year swapped clubs for 45 million euros (35.78 million pounds) when he left Porto for mega-rich Monaco.
If that fee did not grab fans’ attention then five goals in four games in Brazil, including the tournament’s best against Uruguay which flew in off the crossbar from 20 metres, certainly have, sparking comparisons with Lionel Messi and Neymar.
The haul, along with two assists, has made Rodriguez Colombia’s top scorer at a World Cup and a hero back home as the team reached their first ever quarter-final in the tournament.
Fitting statistics for a man occupying the number 10 shirt once worn by Colombia great Carlos Valderrama.
“When one superstar is gone, another one has to step up. And that is Rodriguez,” Valderrama said.
Operating on the left or in behind the strikers, Rodriguez’s reading of the game is intelligent and instinctive.
Comfortable as creator and scorer he has shown his ability in the air and on the ground at the World Cup, not to mention his dance moves as he celebrates goals with a cheeky smile and a little bit of rumba.
He captained Colombia’s Under-20 side to the quarter-finals of the Youth World Cup and impressed on his full national debut, taking the man-of-the-match award in a 2-1 victory over Bolivia in October, 2011.
Despite his tender years, Rodriguez headed to Brazil as an important cog in the team until an injury to leading striker Radamel Falcao meant he was suddenly the main man – a responsibility he has taken in his stride.
Born in Cucuta, near Colombia’s Venezuelan border, Rodriguez grew up in the central city of Ibague without his father, also a footballer, who left home when he was young.
In a slightly baggy red and yellow shirt his big break came at 12 years of age at the Pony Futbol championship, a hugely popular tournament in Colombia where a host of national players have been discovered, including Falcao in 1998.
Rodriguez bagged one goal from a corner and finished as the tournament’s top scorer and best player. Within three years he had packed his bags for Argentina’s Banfield, where he became the youngest foreign player to both compete and score in the league and helped them win a maiden title in 2009.
His obvious talent was gaining admirers. In 2010 he joined Portugal’s Porto, scoring 25 goals in just over 60 games and winning the league player of the year in 2012, as well as three league titles and the Europa League.
He moved to Monaco last May for the second-highest fee in Portuguese football history behind Brazil’s Hulk and went on to score 10 goals and produce a Ligue 1 season best 12 assists.
Apart from talent, maturity beyond his years is a another of Rodriguez’s assets, summed up in his early teens when he sought out private training in order to improve.
Among the flashing cameras, crammed press conferences, celebrity messages from the likes of Colombian singer Shakira, he has been humble and modest – even when describing his wonder volley last Saturday.
“It is difficult to score these goals, but I think when you dream seriously, when you dream about doing this type of thing, then you can do it. When you want something that much and you work that hard, it pays off,” Rodriguez, who is married to Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina’s sister, told reporters.
His impact in Brazil has been huge and his importance to Colombia was perfectly summed up in their final group game against Japan.
With Rodriguez resting on the bench, the South Americans struggled and were being held 1-1 at halftime. His second-half introduction revitalised the team and his two assists and a beautiful chipped goal inspired Colombia to a 4-1 win.
The whirlwind of media attention that has followed for once looks justified, with Rodriguez’s face destined for the billboards and lucrative advertisement slots occupied by the likes of Brazil’s Neymar and Argentina’s Messi – two Barcelona team mates who could soon be seeing a lot more of him.
With media reports of interest from Barca’s arch-rivals Real Madrid, Rodriguez has done little to play down a switch to Spain.
“It would be a dream to play in Spain, one of the best leagues in the world,” he told a Spanish radio station.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)