I adopted Colombia’s World Cup team the first time I saw that swiveling little salsa its players do when they score, and how they runrunrunrunrun, and gather in those clammy group embraces. Their 22-year-old star James Rodriguez looks brand new, like he was just cracked out of a box. There’s not a mark on his complexion, and he chases every ball as if he’s just discovered it, and after a goal he throws his arms out wide, with an utterly brazen invitation to the audience to adore him.
Others may stew over the future of American soccer, with their nagging emphasis on nationality and internal quarrels. I’ve crossed over. You know you’ve done so when slavish loyalty to the national team is not the only reason to care about the World Cup, and you start to vicariously enjoy the rapture of a country, like Colombia or Costa Rica, that you’ve never even been to. Or when you start clicking on YouTube Adidas commercials of Rodriguez in Spanish, just to watch his feet with your jaw slightly agape, though you don’t understand a word. And when you feel a feverish anxiety over Friday’s quarterfinal meeting between Colombia and Brazil, because you can’t wait to see Rodriguez against Neymar, the way you can’t wait to see two lions fight over a rib cage.
The Nielsen ratings are in, and they show that the game has made a long-awaited encroachment in America’s affections: a U.S. audience of 21.6 million watched the Americans lose to Belgium in overtime in the round of 16, even though it was a weekday afternoon. That’s on par with the NBA Finals, and according to ESPN its ratings are up 44 percent from 2010. “Soccer is breaking through and gets its deserved recognition without taking anything away from the other big American sports,” U.S. national Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
That’s wonderful, but with it comes the recognition of how far the United States is from having a team on the level of a Colombia or Brazil. It’s one thing to have a team we’re proud of for its gritty performance, but quite another to have a team that the whole world wants to see. Now that we’re watching, we know; we can finally see the difference in quality between them and us. And it has little to do with “tactics,” despite Landon Donovan’s accusation that Klinsmann mismanaged the team. Belgium got off 27 shots on goal to the U.S.’s nine, and goalie Tim Howard had to make 16 saves. There was a nakedly visible deficit in speed and nimbleness of foot.
Until, that is, Klinsmann threw 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin and 19-year-old Julian Green on to the field as substitutes, when you suddenly sat bolt upright and thought, there it is. The message from Klinsmann a day after the defeat is that in 2015, he’s going young. And it’s the right thing to do, after watching the breakout performance of Rodriguez.
“The talent gap is difficult to discuss,” Klinsmann said. “We’re trying at every level and every corner of the country and outside the country to develop more players for our team. . .”
If the question is, how can the United States find a Rodriguez, the answer seems to be, look in every small town for a poor kid bouncing a ball off his foot. In the meantime, I’m perfectly happy migrating my loyalty to Colombia. It will be interesting to see if Americans need a great American team in order to sustain their World Cup interest, and what kind of ratings ESPN gets on the epic showdown between Brazil and Colombia.
See, there is the progress of American soccer, and then there is the progress of soccer in America, and they are two quite different things. It’s the latter that will benefit from the forehead-smacking star quality of Rodriguez, because it’s impossible to watch him without wanting to follow him beyond the tournament — and wishing more Americans would learn to play like him.
He patters around the field so soft and light of foot he might be wearing house-slippers, and never seems to get tired in the infernal Brazilian heat. He makes defenders look like clumsy stompers, while he does parlor tricks with the ball on his toes. He’s not just the tournament’s leading goal scorer with five, he’s also got two assists, which means he’s accounted for seven of his team’s 11 goals, and if you haven’t seen a replay of his score against Uruguay, you need to. With his back to the goal, he received a pass with his chest, bumped it to himself, and then before it reached the ground, lashed a superhero-style sidekick and left-footed an explosive volley that ducked just under the crossbar.
Rodriguez has not quite come out of the blue; he won league titles in Argentina and Portugal, and was signed by Monaco last year to a contract worth about $65 million. But no one would have predicted him as a candidate for the Golden Boot. His World Cup explosion seems to be a matter of maturity meeting gnawing ambition and financial necessity. He’s from a corner of Colombia called Cucuta, near the Venezuelan border, and he once told a Colombian radio interviewer that he spent most of his young life away from home. He moved to Buenos Aires at 15 to play pro soccer, and described being so poor he could only afford to spend one minute on the phone with his family.
His performance will propel him to unimaginable riches; rumors are there will be a bidding war for him next season. In addition to his talent, he has beauty and an un-solemn, laughing disposition going for him. He is married to the sister of Colombia’s goalie David Ospina, and they have a heart-melting baby daughter, Salome, whose name is tattooed on his forearm. He kisses it after every goal.
“It’s difficult to score these goals, but I think when you dream seriously, when you dream, about doing this type of thing, then you can do it,” he told FIFA.com.
Wherever he goes, he will have an international following.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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