On a cool evening in Sao Paulo last June, football fans watched on as James Rodríguez produced a moment of pure brilliance in front of a small but noisy band of travelling Colombians and the few thousand locals who had turned up at the cavernous Morumbi stadium to watch Los Cafeteros take on guest nation Qatar in the Copa America.
It had been a tight game, with Qatar dogged and defensively solid, and it appeared as if we were drifting towards a disappointing 0-0. But, with just four minutes left on the clock, the only man on the pitch capable of producing the magic needed to break the deadlock finally did.
James ghosted into a pocket of space in the inside right position, took one touch to control Radamel Falcao’s pass, looked up and, with the outside of his left boot, curled an inch-perfect cross onto the head of Duvan Zapata. 1-0 Colombia; cue whoops of joy from the yellow-clad support.
On his return to the country where he made such an impact on the 2014 World Cup, Rodriguez had guaranteed another tournament quarter-final place for his country.
Sao Paulo is a long way from Merseyside and playing Qatar in a mostly empty Morumbi is not exactly the rough and tumble of Goodison Park on a Premier League matchday. But, there are points to be gleaned from that game that bode well for Rodriguez’s chances of making a similar impact at Everton.
The first and most important is psychological. With Colombia, James has long been the central figure; the man his team-mates look to for inspiration when the going is tough. It is a role that suits him, but at Real Madrid it is one he was never able to nail down.
Bar his first season at the Bernabeu, James was rarely guaranteed of a place in the XI. And last season, following his return from a two-year loan at Bayern Munich, he was even less than a bit-part player for Zinedine Zidane, starting just five games in La Liga.
It is, though, a status he can assume for Everton. Even the staunchest Blue would concede that their club is not as replete with stars as Real Madrid, so James will be going into an environment where he is the team’s focal point, which will, in turn, boost his confidence.
The reunion with manager Carlo Ancelotti will also provide him with a sense of belonging, the feeling that he is wanted and valued. When James arrived at Real Madrid in 2014, Ancelotti was the manager and the pair soon struck up a fine working relationship. It is no coincidence that Rodriguez’s first season in the Spanish capital remains by far his best.
Ancelotti is a master at balancing the emotional needs of his players and finding a way to coax consistent, high-class performances out of them. In his autobiography, the Italian wrote of James that, “Money does not matter once the player is at the club; I wanted him playing on the wing because of his footballing quality. He is a dedicated worker and is selfless: he is a true professional.”
After Zidane had made it clear that James was surplus to requirements in Madrid, the pair also teamed up again, albeit briefly, in Bavaria. According to reports, James is willing to take a significant pay cut to join Ancelotti for a third spell, which, if true, is another positive sign for Everton. Unlike Real Madrid’s other unwanted, left-footed attacking superstar Gareth Bale, Rodriguez would rather play than sit at home on a hefty wage.
At 29, he clearly still has the desire to prove himself in European club football and, even more pressingly, needs game time to be sure of position as Colombia captain in the run up to the 2021 Copa América and 2022 World Cup.