For decades, Colombia’s world reputation has been synonymous with drug cartels, guerrilla war and kidnappings. And after mediocre teams failed to qualify for the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, it seemed the country’s soccer prospects were just as depressing.
But recently, Colombia’s fortunes seem to be turning. The FARC guerillas are in peace talks with the government, foreign investment is on the rise, and national pop stars like Shakira are known around the world.
With all this newfound optimism, Colombia is now hoping their biggest star – James Rodriguez – will launch them to a Copa América win.
To be fair, Colombia did experience a “golden age” of soccer in the 1990s, with players like Carlos “Pibe” Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla, Adolfo “El Tren” Valencia, and Freddy Rincó guiding Colombia to Italy 90, USA 94 and France 98. But national soccer during the 2000s was a disappointment.
During that time, the pride was focused on the success of Oscar Córdoba, Jorge Bermúdez, and Mauricio Serna on the Boca Juniors, who guided the Argentinian club to Copa Libertadores victories in 2000 and 2001, and a Intercontinental Cup in 2000 against Real Madrid. Their moment was completed by two compatriotas on the rival team River Plate, Mario Yepes and Juan Pablo Ángel, who also won a couple of local league tournaments. Later, in 2004, Colombian club Once Caldas forced the country to wake momentarily from its nightmare by winning the Copa Libertadores.
But that was it. Córdoba, Bermúdez, Serna, Yepes and Ángel planted a seed that would only truly begin to grow and flower years later.
In 2008, like so many Colombian players before him, James – then just an anonymous midfielder on low-profile team Envigado – signed a contract with Banfield in Buenos Aires. At 16, he was so young that his mother and stepfather had to accompany him during his first days. Though one of the foundational clubs of the Argentinian league, Banfield had never won a title. But in 2009, a young Rodríguez helped change the tides of history, playing a key role in turning the “drill,” (Banfield’s nickname) into champions. From that moment on, James – pronounced not like Bond but like Rodríguez (se habla español!) – became a household name in Colombia.
The following year, Portugal’s giant Porto took James to join fellow countrymen Freddy Guarín and the rising star Radamel Falcao García. James, along with Colombian soccer, was beginning to climb the mountain of glory.
His next challenge would be returning home to captain the national squad in the under-20 2011 World Cup hosted by Colombia. Times had changed since the dramatic Copa América of 2001, the only time Colombia has won the Latin American tournament. The country was on the verge of peace talks with FARC guerrilla. Idols in other sports were also rising, like bikers Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán, long jump athlete Caterine Ibargüen, judoka Yuri Alvear, and 2012 gold medalist Mariana Pajon. James proved ready. Even though Colombia didn’t win the Cup, everything was set for a new era.
Finally in 2014, Colombia returned to the World Cup in Brazil, after sixteen long, forgettable, embarrassing years. With James at the helm, Colombia finished the qualifying rounds two points behind leader Argentina. The prize was closer than ever.
Colombia’s squad largely lived up to expectations and played a starring role in Brazil. They passed the first round as their group leaders, beating Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan and, as a bonus, delivering graceful goals that earned them respect. This was a sweet victory; at last Colombians were getting widely recognized for positive values instead of criminal acts.
The second round against the die-hard Uruguayans was a tough game, in which James not only scored twice but scored the best goal of the Cup. Enthusiasm grew. Colombia had never gotten this far in all of World Cup history, and suddenly it was the country of the moment. With injured Falcao out, James was Colombia’s brightest star. Since Valderrama’s retirement many players had tried, and failed, to fill the shoes of the number 10. Now, Argentinian manager José Pekerman had a candidate in James.
Next, came Colombia vs. Brazil in the quarter-finals – a tough but honorable battle. Unfortunately, Colombia’s World Cup ambitions ended there, with James battling as clumsily as the rest of the 21 players did that day. Still, his efforts were inspiring, and admired by rival David Luiz, as well as the rest of the 60,000 attendees at Fortaleza’s Castelao Stadium. Colombia wasn’t in the winner’s circle, but they showed the world defeat can be faced and overcome.
Each step in James’ short career has been a huge improvement, a step closer to glory. Reaching Real Madrid is seen in Colombia as the Olympus of soccer; it is more coveted than powerful clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Bayern Munchen. Even Colombian ambassador Fernando Carrillo was at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium the day that James was inducted into the merengue cult, bearing a proud message from Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos.
A Colombian playing for Real Madrid inspires confidence in all the frustrated players kicking the ball on amateur fields, and in all the young parents hoping they’ve spawned the next James. As soon as Real Madrid confirmed his transfer (the fourth most expensive in history, just behind teammates Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Uruguayan Luis Suárez), Real Madrid shirts with the number 10 sprung up in shop windows across Colombia. In less than 48 hours, 345,000 Adidas shirts with “James 10” emblazoned on the back had been sold.
James didn’t walk alone into the soccer kingdom of heaven. All Colombians entered with him. They are sure the time has come to change things. Soccer is just the first step.