By SANTIAGO TORRADO
2014-07-04 06:22 AM
FORTALEZA, Brazil (AP) -- With his five goals, his bright yellow jersey and his boyish looks, James Rodriguez has attracted the attention of Brazil.
Precocious and virtuoso are just two of the words used to describe the 22-year-old playmaker ahead of Colombia's World Cup quarterfinal match against host Brazil on Friday.
Just 22, he is already Colombia's top scorer at a World Cup and is the leading scorer so far at the 2014 tournament. For many, the player who wears the name James (pronounced: HA-mez) on his jersey has been a revelation at the World Cup.
But for those who have followed his football career, there has been no surprise. They knew that he was talented, had a winning mentality and could give Colombians something they have been awaiting for a long time. He has been consolidating himself as the replacement of Carlos "el Pibe" Valderrama, the leading figure of a national team that played in three World Cups in the 1990s.
Faustino Asprilla, an ex-Colombia player from that generation, said that Rodriguez "can be the best Colombian footballer in history."
His technical abilities have been exceptional and he has shown them off in Brazil. He scores with surprising ease. He has scored in each of Colombia's matches, and he has done it with both feet and his head.
In Colombia's 2-0 win over Uruguay, he controlled the ball with his chest and shot from outside the area to score perhaps the most stunning goal of the tournament.
"Football needs players of his characteristics for this spectacle," Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez said. "For the moment, he's the best player at this World Cup."
Despite his nickname, "el Nino" arrived in Brazil with the curriculum of a veteran: eight years playing as a professional in Colombia, Argentina, Portugal and France. His professional debut came when he was 15 for Colombian team Envigado.
Rodriguez also became the youngest foreign player to debut, score and become a champion in Argentina, where his performances were a springboard for a move to Europe.
In 2010, he moved to Porto, where he shared a dressing room with fellow Colombia teammates Radamel Falcao, Fredy Guarin and, later on, Jackson Martinez. In Portugal, he won three league titles and the Europa League before signing with Monaco, which paid 45 million euros for his transfer last season.
In Portugal, aged just 19, he married Daniela Ospina, the sister of Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina. A devout Christian, Rodriguez goes to church, as does Falcao and other members of the Colombia squad. The faith seems to be a uniting element of the team, which usually gathers in a circle on the pitch and prays before matches.
On social media sites, Rodriguez refers to himself in profiles as a "son of God."
Usually shy and a man of few words, he got over a mild stuttering problem during his childhood. He is the son of an ex-footballer who left the family when Rodriguez was 3. It was his step-father who took Rodriguez to a football school when he was 5 and where he usually played with boys who were advanced.
"That boy played every match as if it were the last one he would play in his life," said Armando Calderon, coach of the Tolimense Football Academy where Rodriguez played as a youth before turning professional with Envigado.
"James doesn't accept losing, not even in PlayStation," his mother, Pilar Rubio, said.
From Envigado, he went to play for Banfield in Argentina when he was 16.
At Monaco, the young playmaker was reunited with Falcao, whose serious knee injury in January meant Rodriguez assumed more goal-scoring responsibilities in the final months of the season. He finished the season with 10 goals and 13 assists.
Rodriguez soon extinguished any fears that without "El Tigre," Colombia wouldn't be able to find its way to goal.
"His growth is permanent, mature," Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said. "He has a vision for the game, a good shot."
Rodriguez's feats are transcending football, and comments about his talent are all over social media.
"Man watching this Colombian game I think I have my fav player in the world cup!" NBA player LeBron James said. "Obviously his name help that out."
Rodriguez will turn 23 on July 12, the eve of the World Cup final at the Maracana, and all of Colombia hopes that he will help guide the team there.
"It's a group that wants to make history," Rodriguez said. "This isn't over."