James Rodriguez returns to Brazil for Copa America hoping to recapture 2014 World Cup magic
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was arguably the best moment in the history of Colombia's national team. They not only reached the quarterfinals -- its best World Cup finish to date -- but were also one of the most vibrant sides in Brazil and featured the Golden Boot winner.
James Rodriguez stepped onto the pitch in Belo Horizonte for Colombia's first group game against Greece as a promising 22-year-old midfielder. By the time his nation's run ended three weeks later against hosts Brazil, he was the tournament's top scorer and had emerged as one of the world's biggest stars and at £63 million, soon-to-be most expensive.
Five years later, Rodriguez returns to Brazil for this month's Copa America (live on ESPN+) a more experienced and well-known player but his expectations remain the same. More than anything, he arrives in Brazil hungry for payback.
Rodriguez's past year was a forgettable one. He suffered through various injuries, beginning at last summer's World Cup, where he was unable to be a full participant. He started just two of Colombia's four matches, and a calf injury forced him off after just half an hour of his team's final group -stage match and ruled him out of the round-of-16 loss to England.
That same injury prevented him from being able to take the pitch for the start of the club season with Bayern Munich, and ultimately from seizing a starting spot with the Bavarians.
The 27-year-old may not have been a major factor this season for Bayern but he arrives in Brazil in top shape and finally pain free -- albeit without playing too many significant minutes this season.
"The national team should be built around players like him," Colombia coach Carlos Queiroz said at his introductory news conference in February. Queiroz seeks to pick up where previous national team manager Jose Pekerman left off in transforming Rodriguez from a young talent into Colombia's undisputed leader and biggest superstar.
Colombia's underwhelming effort in Russia made Rodriguez's impact clear, not only because of his game but because of what he means to his teammates as a leader. It's all the more important this summer with Colombia set to be without River Plate attacking midfielder Juan Fernando Quintero, who will miss the Copa America with an ACL tear.
In 28 games for Bayern over all competitions in 2018-19, Rodriguez managed just seven goals and six assists, his lowest output since he joined top-flight Argentine side Banfield in 2008. Rodriguez, though, is a different player when on national team duty, as the midfielder is at his best when he is in his comfort zone and has the freedom to play as he is best suited. That said, there is work to be done in knocking off the rust and rebuilding his confidence before the Copa.
Rodriguez was a diamond in the rough before Brazil 2014. After his brilliant club stint in Argentina with Banfield, he made the move to Europe and progressed at Porto before grabbing wealthy Ligue 1 side Monaco's attention in 2013. Individually his first season in France was an impressive one but he was still far from a household name on the global scale. That changed in Brazil, where he earned a reputation as a "crack" player, a label reserved for the world's best and brightest.
The 2014 World Cup saw Rodriguez score in all five of Colombia's matches -- six goals in total. He conquered the Brazilian cities of Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Cuiaba, Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza. He expects to do the same this time around in Salvador de Bahia, Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre and more.
The differences between then and now are numerous, age being the most obvious one but not the most fundamental. Perhaps the biggest difference this time is that Rodriguez isn't seeking a breakout performance but rather redemption. His last five years at Real Madrid and Bayern haven't met the expectations of his Colombian fans. It's possible that he's been a victim of decisions made by others rather than his own doing, but at his feet now is an opportunity to change his fortune and remind the world of his greatness. And after his unforgettable 2014, what better place to do it than back in Brazil?