It was a good day to be wearing yellow at the World Cup.
First, the host nation’s 202 million inhabitants exhaled and then partied as Brazil survived a stirring penalty kick shootout against Chile in Belo Horizonte. A few hours later, at historic Maracana Stadium here, “Los Cafeteros” of Colombia continued their dominating run through this tournament, shutting out Uruguay 2-0 to set up a sizzling quarterfinal against Brazil.
Both Colombia goals were scored by 22-year-old James Rodriguez, known simply as “James” (pronounced Ham-mess), who leads the Golden Boot race with five goals in four matches and is the undisputed breakout young star of the tournament. His first goal, in the 28th minute, was one of the most spectacular of this World Cup and delighted the 40,000 Colombians who serenaded their beloved team the entire match.
His back to the goal, Rodriguez settled a high ball with his chest from 30 yards out, dropped it to his feet, pivoted, and — with barely a glance toward the goal — launched a left-footed volley that hit the top, left corner of the net. There have been many memorable goals scored in this building over the years, and Rodriguez’s brilliant blast joins the list.
He and his teammates celebrated with a hip-shaking dance that would make Shakira proud.
Rodriguez’s second goal, in the 50th minute, was more of a team effort. Pablo Armero, free on the wing, sent a cross to Juan Cuadrado, who headed it to the middle of the box, where a waiting Rodriguez slipped it past Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez was effusive in his praise for Rodriguez, comparing him with the game’s greats.
“I have seen him play a long time, and like [Diego] Maradona, [Lionel] Messi, [Luis] Suarez, James Rodriguez is among the type of player who has certain gifts, things that make him special,” Tabarez said. “It’s not up to me, but I think he’s the best player in this World Cup. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that. He’s quite good.
“We tried to limit him, but he kept coming, made his presence felt. Hopefully he will continue to move on, because the sport needs players with these characteristics.”
The 22-year-old, who plays for AS Monaco in France, even captured the attention of Heat star LeBron James, who tweeted: “Man watching this Colombian game I think I have my fave player in the world cup! Obviously his name help that out #biased #James.”
Rodriguez remained humble after the game, preferring to talk about this team’s accomplishments.
“I’m happy because we’re making history,” he said. “This is a great dream of mine, and I hope we can make it far. We want to do even more. There’s no pressure on us against Brazil. Obviously, they play well and have a great team. But we also have great players. We can be dangerous. It should be a beautiful match for all of us to play in.”
Colombia, back in the World Cup for the first time in 16 years, has won all four of its games and has a plus-nine goal differential over its opponents. The team’s success has been somewhat of a surprise because its biggest star, Radamel Falcao, is sitting out following knee surgery. When it was announced Falcao wouldn’t be able to play in the World Cup, Colombian fans were devastated.
Rodriguez has more than filled Falcao’s boots.
“He’s given us a lot, always comes up big, which is rare for such a young player,” Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said. “One expects young guys to play well technically, but he also grown a lot to take on this kind of responsibility.”
For years now, retired frizzy-haired Colombian icon Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama has been raving about Rodriguez, who considers Valderrama his idol and wears the same No. 10 jersey. Valderrama, who also played for the Miami Fusion, was part of Colombia’s Golden Generation in the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups. He says Rodriguez is the star Colombia has been craving.
“A lot of people in Colombia have been asking me for a long time who would be the next ‘El Pibe’ and the answer is James Rodriguez,” Valderrama said this week. “James will be the next big star for the next 10 years.”
As for Uruguay, its deflated team and fans head home to join disgraced star Suarez, who was suspended for nine games and four months after biting an Italian defender in the previous match. Suarez was surely missed on the field, but Tabarez said that was not the reason Uruguay lost.
“We all knew what happened with Luis, and we tried to defend him because we know what kind of person he is more than people who don’t know him, but we had to stop thinking about that,” he said. “We tried to focus on the positive things that could come out of that situation. It generated a lot of strength and willingness. Suarez is an important player, I don’t need to say that, but we knew he wasn’t going to play, was not going to be close to us, so we accepted that. Colombia was just too good.”