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James Rodríguez — The Best at the Copa América. Where Has He Been and How Did He Return to Top Form?

The Colombian has unexpectedly revived, even though you might have forgotten about him.

Have you forgotten about James Rodríguez? He’s only 32 years old (soon to be 33). By the standards of the current Copa, that's an average age. And he is still in great shape. The performance that James is delivering at this tournament is comparable only to his play at the 2014 World Cup. At the Copa, Rodríguez has already made five assists — a record result and a big chance for him to return to significant club football. Remember how James’s career has unfolded in recent years and analyze his play at the tournament.

After his time at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the Colombian moved to Everton and slowly faded from view. Initially, he joined the team under Carlo Ancelotti. The player and coach always had a unique chemistry, but that wasn’t enough for James to shine on English fields. The brutal and intense football in the Premier League often turned the Colombian into an invisible man and sometimes even sent him to the infirmary.

After Ancelotti left, Rafael Benítez came to Everton — a fan of quick attacks and active pressing. It quickly became apparent that James wouldn’t fit the new coach’s plans and needed to find a new club. That summer, there were no takers for the expensive player, and James was forced to go wherever he could just to get some playing time. Thus, he ended up first at Qatari club Al-Rayyan, then at Olympiacos, and later at São Paulo.
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In 2017, James admitted that the role of a "№ 10" in modern football was diminishing. In the midfield, players like him were given no space. Attacks became faster and shorter, and holding midfielders played a much more critical role in quickly moving the ball out of defense. They had long since learned to make good passes and did much of the dirty work. Playmakers became useless both against "parked buses" and fast counterattacking teams. Perhaps this realization made James quickly lose faith in himself.

For the past three years, Rodríguez did not display any bright play, suffered from injuries, and was criticized by fans for his lack of motivation. In Greece, James frustrated everyone so much that head coach José Anigo demanded a public apology from the Colombian for his performance. In the end, James did not apologize; he simply terminated his contract. Things also didn’t go well with São Paulo coach Luis Zubeldía, who believed the team was more balanced without James and constantly emphasized to journalists that "everyone in the team is equal." In 2024, James rarely played for the club and scored only one goal. And yet, it was on Brazilian fields 10 years ago that he became a superstar.

The only constant joy in James’s career remains the national team — he consistently played in the World Cup 2026 qualifiers and particularly shone against serious opponents like Brazil and Uruguay. Colombian coach Néstor Lorenzo had no doubts that James could benefit the team in this tournament even without regular playing time.

Under Lorenzo, all the players, especially James, play as freely as possible. Rodríguez occupies his usual position and no longer tries to play as a holding midfielder or on the attack wing. He only moves there when he wants to — more often to the left wing, as befits a left-footer. James is entrusted with all set pieces and allowed to execute them unconventionally. James might unexpectedly shoot at the goal where any other player would cross into the penalty area. Where another would make a powerful low cross, James might deliver a soft, elegant lob.
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All this yields results. James thanks the coach for his trust not only with effective attacking play but also with his commitment. Rodríguez uncharacteristically works hard until the end and tries to make the most of seemingly lost moments. This is how Colombia’s only goal against Brazil was scored. Against the Brazilians, James was more involved in tackles, which created pressure in the midfield.

Sometimes, it might seem that James still lacks movement or simply forgets to join attacks. But in reality, Rodríguez is just playing the role of a classic playmaker, for whom it is more important not to make unnecessary movements but to deliver timely assists. He did this in the matches against Costa Rica and Panama. Though it’s said that "number 10s" are out of fashion, sometimes they unexpectedly make a statement. James waited for the right moment. He waited!

However, in the match against Marcelo Bielsa’s Uruguay, the Colombian must move more actively and make faster decisions. There won’t be much space for maneuvers. Still, Uruguay’s challenging play might give Colombia many set pieces, which will play into James’s hands as his deliveries at this Copa have been surprisingly accurate. European teams have likely started to follow James again this summer. Still, if he successfully passes the test against Uruguay, he might aim for a top club. Although, for now, the media is more frequently mentioning a move to Boca Juniors. James himself confidently states in interviews that he has indeed been reborn.

Published by Patrick Jane