James Rodríguez and Real Madrid will take the field Saturday afternoon with hopes of winning the biggest prize in club football, the Champions League trophy.
Though the thrill of this big stage will be incredible, it will also be bittersweet for James. It may be the last time the Colombia superstar ever suits up for Los Blancos — and he might not even play one minute in the match.
After an up-and-down season — for both the club and James — it seems increasingly likely that the midfielder will be playing somewhere else next season. He no longer appears to be in the team’s future plans as it prepares to enter a new era under a new coach.
For Real, the year has been an encouraging testament to perseverance. The club has unexpectedly battled its way back to the final match in a competition it last won two seasons ago after spending much of the season rudderless. Getting this far has certainly been a surprise.
Real Madrid started the season under a new manager, Rafael Benítez of Spain, but he never got the team playing up to the lofty expectations of the richest football club in the world. They were embarrassed on their home field by arch rivals Barcelona and also disqualified from the league cup tournament when Benítez put an ineligible player on the field.
He was fired midseason, and French legend Zinedine Zidane took over. This seemed to be good news for James Rodríguez, because his life under Benítez had been miserable.
The visionary midfielder suffered a bad injury to his quad muscle early in the year and missed more than a month of action. Then upon return, he never got into the good graces of Benítez. He was visibly upset on the field when he did get to play. He was often used out of position to cover up for injuries in the front lines.
And in these varying roles, James proved unable to show the same level of talent that led to him scoring 17 goals and recording 16 assists in 41 games with Real during his initial season with the club in the prior year.
He certainly had his moments. An incredible bicycle-kick goal awed all onlookers early in the season and he netted some outstanding free kicks.
But his place in the starting lineup never became certain as it had been the previous year under manager Carlo Ancelotti. Rumors also swirled about his lack of fitness and newfound appreciation for the Madrid nightlife.
A run in with the law (he was picked up for reckless speeding) certainly didn’t help his standing among the club’s rabid fanbase, which had already started to turn on him. James rigorously denied all allegations about becoming a party boy, but there seemed to be no way he would re-enter Benítez’s preferred lineup.
Zidane replacing Benítez was supposed to change things. But it never really did.
James did get some extra opportunities, but the midfield combination of him, Luke Modric, and Toni Kroos did not click this season. Zidane began experimenting with other midfield trios and settled on one with Modric, Kroos, and the defensive-minded Casemiro of Brazil.
Real started winning right after — hammering Barcelona in an away match — and starting a long run of high-level play in the Champions League competition. With the new lineup sparking a midseason turnaround and James never really shining, he became a fixture on the bench in all of Real Madrid’s key matches.
Many now believe his days in the Spanish capital are numbered. There is a chance he stays. By no means was James an outright disappointment this season. He did not display the same brilliance he had previously, but even in a season derailed by injury and managerial changes, he produced.
James scored 7 goals and recorded 8 assists in 17 appearances for Madrid in La Liga play. In all competitions, he was fourth on the team in both goals and assists despite logging relatively few minutes.
But there just does not seem to be a spot for him in Zidane’s future lineup. Selling him also makes a lot of financial sense for Real Madrid. He also still would return a huge sum to the club if it sells him.
Real paid roughly US$107 million for James in July 2014 — the fourth highest transfer fee ever at the time — and now many large teams are interested in paying big money for him again. James’ name has now shown up in rumors of moves to major clubs all over the continent, from Manchester United and Juventus to Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain.
For at least one more day, however, he is still with Real Madrid. And he will be fighting for the biggest trophy in football tomorrow as the club clashes with Atletico Madrid.
Whether he gets on the field or not, his contributions to the team over the past two years have helped to put Colombian football on the map. Though things may not work out any longer in Spain, James is still a coveted talent the world over.
And he may yet add a Champions League trophy to his resume before he leaves Madrid. The glory won’t be as great as it could have been with him leading the charge — rather than cheering on from the sidelines — but James now has the chance to realize the biggest dream of every football player ever.
James isn’t the only Colombia star playing in Europe. Juan Cuadrado has also been busy this year, winning multiple trophies with Italian Serie A league champs Juventus. After arriving in his new club on loan from London’s Chelsea, he fit in well and added flavor to the Juventus attack.
Though he was not a full time starter on the wing, he notched 5 goals to go with 5 assists in 21 appearances. His highlight of the season came in a hard-fought loss to German champs Bayern Munich in the Champions League. In one of the best goals any team recorded in the entire competition, he took a pass after a long run by Alvaro Morata and expertly put it in the net.
The finish showed the type of class, composure, and creativity that Cuadrado first illustrated on the world stage during the 2014 World Cup. And with him starring alongside James in Seleccion’s Colombia’s upcoming date with the United States and others in Copa America, the nation is hoping he has more feats of brilliance like this in him soon.
Another Colombian forward, Carlos Bacca, also made his mark in Italy this season. Bacca came over from Sevilla to join AC Milan, and just as he had in Spain, the goalscorer scored goals.
Though Milan disappointed, finishing seventh in the standings, Bacca was easily its most dangerous player in attack, managing 18 goals in 36 appearances in Serie A. Nobody else scored more than 6 goals.
While the once-proud club has fallen on rougher times, its Colombian striker was the brightest spot. Though it did qualify for the upcoming Italian Supercoppa match and thus has some chance at playing in Europa League competition next season, Bacca may not be around.
Rumors say the 30-year-old would like a chance to play for a club with greater potential to compete in Europe. Add this to the lofty transfer fee he would command a Milan team in need of cash, and it means that both he and the team will be considering a move this Summer.
Jackson Martinez started off the season playing for Atletico Madrid. Like James and Radamel Falcao before him, he had made his name in Portugal with Porto and was now believed to be ready for the larger leagues in Europe.
Along with prolific French goalscorer Antoine Griezmann and a returning Fernando Torres, the Colombian striker was expected to add a potent offensive punch to coach Diego Simeone’s defensive-minded Atleti side. But it never really worked out. They had enough scoring without Martinez, and he was unable to find the net, scoring just 3 goals in 22 appearances.
The team then sold him to China, where several clubs have been over-paying market salaries for the past few years in hopes of drawing world-class talent. Guangzhou Evergrande paid US$45 million, an all-time record for an Asian club, and the offer was too good for Atletico to refuse.
He scored 3 goals in 10 games in China while helping Guangzhou win the Chinese Super League and the Chinese FA Super Cup. There was talk last month that team co-owner and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma may be prepping to buy Italian league club AC Milan in a deal valued at more than half a billion dollars. Martinez has been reported to be moved to Milan if that purchase comes to pass.
That is all speculation for now and seems increasingly unlikely, however, so it seems Jackson will remain one of the highest-profile of a new class of foreign stars playing in China. He will also play for Colombia in the upcoming Rio Olympics this summer (though not be included in the Seleccion Colombian that kicks off in Copa America next week).
Radamel Falcao Garcia
Until James broke out in the 2014 World Cup, Radamel Falcao Garcia had firmly established himself as the best player in Colombian history. Most would say he still is given a rate of goalscoring that few have ever matched.
He wowed as a young striker in Portugal with Porto, notching 41 goals in 51 games before moving to a bigger stage. Nothing changed once he got to Atletico Madrid, however, with Falcao soon emerging as arguably the best striker on the planet.
He made Atletico a threat in European competition while scoring a remarkable 52 goals in 68 appearances over two seasons. After that came Monaco, where he would play alongside James and continue putting fear into every defender he faced.
Unfortunately, he suffered a devastating knee injury just six months before Colombia’s impressive showing in the World Cup in Brazil. So he missed out on the recognition and renown that his countrymates received. And now the question is whether he will ever play at a high level again.
He has since spent time on loan with huge English clubs Manchester United and Chelsea, but he has never shown the skill he had before his injury. At this point, he just wants to play again — somewhere — to prove he still has some good years left. With one year remaining on a contract with Monaco, he appears headed back to France. (Although some reports have linked him with. River Plate, the Argentine club where he got his start.)
No matter where he ends up, Colombians and fans of great football across the world just hope he can get back on the field and look healthy again. His peak years featured some of the finest play anyone has put together in the modern era, so until he retires many will continue to believe that the great Falcao can still score goals.