Pitch Dish

Where Did Columbia’s James Rodríguez Come From?

James Rodríguez meteoric rise to World Cup superstar seemed to come out of nowhere. The now World Cup goal leader has scored in each game, and scored a wonder goal against Uruguay late in the first half.

For any Columbian, the 23 year old AS Monaco midfielder is anything but a surprise:

…it was at the Pony Futbol championship in 2004 that Rodríguez’s life changed for ever. Every year the infant tournament grabs huge attention in Colombia with games being televised and scouts swarming to the event. It is seen as one of Colombian football’s best breeding grounds, with 11 of the 30 players initially called up by the coach, José Pékerman, having played at the competition.

Radamel Falcao appeared at the 1998 version, but six years later it was Rodríguez and the goal the forward scored directly from a corner that left the greatest impression. He finished as top goalscorer and best player, and in the crowds a highly powerful and controversial ex-associate of the infamous drug baron Pablo Escobar was taking note.

If Rodríguez now partly owes his place among the world’s elite to Pékerman’s support and masterful schooling, back then it was a businessman with suspected ties to Medellín’s drug cartels and vigilante death squads who gave the teenager his big chance.

Gustavo Adolfo Upegui Lopez was president and chief shareholder at Envigado football club where Rodríguez would go on to make his professional debut. To this day the Academia Tolimense claim they were “cheated” out of a fair price when Envigado swooped for Rodríguez.

Upegui was not a man to be messed with. He had been jailed for 21 months in 1998 for suspected links to cases involving kidnapping as well as organising rightwing paramilitary groups, although he was eventually cleared of the charges. Envigado’s first president, Jorge Arturo Bustamante, had been shot dead in 1993 and a long string of unsolved murders plagued both the club and Upegui until the director himself was murdered in 2006.

But Envigado’s youth setup was second to none and Rodríguez understood the huge opportunity presented to him by Upegui. After uprooting his family to settle in Medellín, the youngster turned to the renowned coach Omar Suárez for private coaching. “That says it all about him,” Suárez commented. “Which other kid his age would consider paying for extra coaching because they want to be the best?”

13 year old Rodriguez swerved corner kick

Three years later and he is the form player in arguably the form team of the World Cup. Last summer’s £38.5m switch from Porto to Monaco underlined the playmaker’s potential as one of the world’s most exciting young players.

Read More: theguardian.com

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