This past Sunday, the day after winning the Champions League, Real Madrid was honored at the Santiago Bernabéu by thousands of adoring Madridistas as the Spanish champions celebrated their 12th European title.
It was an overwhelming celebration, where players and coaches partied center stage as the stadium sang La Décima, their famous anthem, which was created after winning the 10th trophy in Lisbon against Atletico in 2014.
Every player was introduced as a superstar, including captain Sergio Ramos, who entered the stage carrying la Orejona (the trophy) and with the club flag wrapped around him as a cape. It was an evening where each member could have his own personal snapshot and remember an incredible accomplishment, surrounded by supporters who experienced it firsthand.
So when James Rodriguez–the 25-year-old Colombian who was completely forgotten by manager Zinedine Zidane and omitted from Saturday’s squad entirely–entered the festivities, he received quite an emotional reception.
When Rodriguez’s name was announced through the speakers, the sound was deafening and as his 4-year-old daughter Salomé admired the reception from the stands, there stood James thanking the fans and applauding their warm reaction.
Perhaps, for one final time.
James’s relationship with Real Madrid has been–for lack of a better word–complicated. Since his debut three years ago, his appearances have deteriorated season after season, partly due to a fracture on his fifth metatarsal in his right foot in 2014, and a muscle tear at the beginning of the 2015-2016 campaign.
But the injuries only tell the part of the story.
If we want to understand why Rodriguez has failed to live up to expectation after a solid first season, then we have to examine how his talents were managed, but more importantly, how he managed himself.
In 2014, Carlo Ancelotti marveled at the offensive arsenal Real Madrid had at its disposal as the three-headed animal of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale also meant the arrival of the 4-3-3 formation.
Consequently, Ancelotti’s tactics forced James to play a more defensive role than he was used to, closer to the midfield, and leave his preferred position of playing higher up the pitch, sitting just behind the striker.
"I hope to play where I feel most comfortable and help the team to win,” he said in November 2014. “I feel more comfortable where I play for Colombia because I like to be closer to the goal; that works better for me. I can score and pass from there but, as a player, I have to be prepared to play in any position."
James was willing to prove his worth, and despite the injuries and the positional tinkering, he was able to produce a strong debut season, accumulating 17 goals and 18 assists in all competitions.
Regardless, things would still not go his way.
Once Zidane arrived halfway through the 2015-2016 season stepping in after Rafa Benitez’s failed tenure, James’s influence faded, as Zidane believed that academy-raised players such Jesé (who was eventually sold, now on loan at Las Palmas from PSG) provided more of what he wanted out of a midfielder. Zidane, having coached Castilla (Real Madrid’s second team) for two years, wanted to introduce more club-bred talent.
Last April, after Zidane failed to use James as a sub in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal against Manchester City, legendary Colombian Carlos Valderrama spoke out.
“Even if he scores three, four or five goals, Zidane won't put him on," said Valderrama after the match. “I don’t know what he has to do.”
Valderrama was voicing out what many Colombians was feeling. What was Zidane not seeing?
A few months later, Real Madrid was offered €85 million for James from Inter Milan. James, however, refused, as he wanted to prove his worth to Zidane, but last August Real Madrid faced Sevilla in UEFA’s Super Cup, and he was used only as the last substitute, despite the fact that Ronaldo, Bale or Toni Kroos weren’t in the squad. Marco Asensio took his place, started and scored the first goal of a 3-2 victory.
After the game, Zidane answered questions about Rodriguez. “He is a Real Madrid player,” said the Frenchman, “but we have a very large squad. We'll see what happens.”
If you ask many Cafeteros, they will confirm the value of James and what he brings to the team, but more importantly, they will emphasize how manager José Pékerman utilizes his captain for Colombia.
Under Pekerman, James is the focal point, the false nine of a fast-paced, extremely athletic unit, and he has led Colombia to second place in the CONMEBOL qualifying table for the 2018 World Cup. In Colombia's last match, a 2-0 win over Ecuador, he was everywhere, scoring one and setting another.
At 25, he is fourth on the all-time scoring list for his nation with 19 goals and only six behind the leader, Radamel Falcao. To give this a little more context, Falcao–a striker–debuted for Colombia four years before Rodriguez.
"He [Rodriguez] is an essential part of Colombia's system of play," Pekerman said last year. "He's a great footballer and has the qualities we look for–creativity, finds space, creates advantages off the dribble, and provides assists.”
James is an extraordinary talent, but at Real Madrid he is the victim of his own versatility. He is able to deliver and provide the necessary, but in order to get the most out of him, James must be the focal point of the team, and that’s just something that is never going to happen at Real Madrid.
“Something we must remember is that James isn’t perfect–nobody is–and the chemistry between a manager and a star player sometimes doesn’t fit,” says Alejandro Farffann, a well-respected Colombian pundit. “We all remember [Pep] Guardiola’s issues with Samuel Eto'o at Barcelona, so with James and Zidane, this could also be a factor, where they just don’t sync.”
Despite the stumbling blocks, Farffann still believes Rodriguez is a fit for Real Madrid, as there is clear evidence of what he can do.
“You don’t win the [World Cup] Golden Boot just because of happenstance. You don’t become a world-class player just because of chance. James has already proven himself, and what’s more, at 25 he is about to enter the best stage of his career, so there’s more to come from him. But if he goes, then he’s good enough to join a top-five club in Europe. So whether you like him or not, we need to remember that he’s a pure No. 10 and still has a lot to offer.”
Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s president, has already stated that his fate is in the hands of his manager, but the reality is that due to Rodriguez’s contract and high wages, a permanent deal to another club might be too pricey, save for a few destinations. Inter Milan is once again said interested–and Manchester United, too, but fitting in a Mourinho tactical scheme may not be the solution, either–and time will tell how it unfolds.
Whether he leaves for good or on a long-term loan deal, it's worth heeding Farffann’s words: James Rodriguez is about the enter his prime, so he needs a team that strategizes around his strengths and doesn't try to fit him in where it won't maximize his abilities.
On Wednesday, Colombia plays against Spain in a friendly as Julen Lopetegui’s squad prepares for a World Cup qualifier against Macedonia, four days later.
For Pekerman & Co., this is nothing more than a warm-up, as CONMEBOL qualifiers don't resume until August and September, when Colombia faces Venezuela and Brazil. But for James, this match against Spain could also be an opportunity to face some of his Real Madrid teammates and show them what they could be missing if he left.