When James Rodríguez transferred to Real Madrid in the summer of 2014, Colombians had found their new favorite club team. For a soccer-crazy country that had a lot of good players but few international superstars, the then-23-year-old budding star served as a rallying point for the entire country. You couldn’t go out in any of the big Colombian cities without seeing a handful of all-white #10 James jerseys, as fans gravitated to his skill and star power at the Spanish giants. It is therefore not a surprise that his loan move to German powerhouse Bayern Munich would spark much of the same fervor in James’ homeland. And spark it, it has.
According to a report by Front Office Sports’ Lucy Hartwell, Bayern received a boost in popularity in the immediate aftermath of announcing the Colombian midfielder’s temporary move. Surely, part of this was from the shocking aspect of the move, as Hartwell analyzes: “The Bayern social media team capitalized on the soccer world’s surprise and James’ unexpected move led to unprecedented engagement for the powerhouse German club.”
However, another big part, and one that is seen any time a huge Latin American star moves clubs, comes from the national pride that comes with seeing one of your own make it on the world’s biggest soccer stages. From Neymar’s move to Barcelona correlating with an increased support for the Catalans from Brazil, to Chicharito Hernandez’s mexican fanbase becoming avid Bundesliga watchers following his move to Bayer Leverkusen, signing stars with strong national fanbases is a tried and true method for big clubs looking to expand into new markets.
And so, while the purported 11 million website impressions and “six figure” growth in global social media followers for Bayern–as stated by the club’s Executive Board Chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge–might have been in part due to the immediate surprise following the announcement, it would be interesting to see just how big a piece of that pie comes from Colombia. James’ transfer also serves as a test case for the rising costs of soccer players worldwide; not only is there more revenue from TV rights, merchandise sales, and tournament winnings, clubs have realized that they can weaponize an athlete’s existing brand and fan following in order to maximize the club’s reach.
It’s a strategy that was perfected by Manchester United in their Asian expansion at the turn of the century; it’s why that club is still the biggest in the world. To put it all on its signing of Park Ji-sung would be hyperbolic, but having a prominent player from South Korea on the first team helped accelerate the expansion plans put into place by United’s management team. While Bayern has dabbled with Latin Americans in recent years–Danté, Rafinha, and Douglas Costa from Brazil, and Arturo Vidal from Chile–none of those players carry the recognition that James does, particularly after both his incredible 2014 World Cup and his stint on the most successful team of the last few years.
For anecdotal proof of the power of James’ Colombian fanbase, one need only look at poor Arjen Robben’s Instagram comments. From the moment James was announced as a Bayern player, fans began flooding his new Dutch teammate’s page, with one simple goal: getting Robben to relinquish James’ preferred #10. It’s silly, but the sheer magnitude can’t be ignored, and surely, Bayern Munich isn’t doing so.
It’s not a certainty, but if James pans out for the Bavarian side, you will surely see them play friendlies in Colombia in the near future, and that’s just one part of what will surely be a full-court press on the region. Players of James’ caliber and with his brand power don’t become available often; for Bayern Munich, swooping in for Colombia’s talisman is as much about the off-the-field power as it is for his beautiful left-footed strikes on the pitch.