The World Cup’s lost its best player (and it’s James not Neymar)

The Rio Report

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The 40,000 Colombia fans spilled out of the Minierao stadium in Belo Horizonte. All wore yellow, one wore a tiger's head. They'd just seen their team play their first game in the World Cup finals since 1998. Better still, they won the match with a largely impressive performance against Greece. Three points would give Colombia a huge advantage in qualifying from the World Cup's weakest group.

Former Newcastle star Faustino Asprilla was among the Colombians leaving the stadium. Asked how his English was, he replied "terrible" before explaining in Spanish how success for Colombia would be matching the achievements of the side at Italia '90.

Back then, Colombia won, drew and lost their three group games, but qualified for the last 16 as a best placed third team. They were defeated 2-1 by a Cameroon side who then lost to England.

Despite not having one of the world's great strikers Radamel Falcao after losing him to injury in January, this Colombia outfit were already in a strong position to better that. The Colombian ex-pats on the flight from Miami to Belo Horizonte before the game had put their misguided faith in Falcao's recovery , but they also spoke well of other players "like James". They pronounced it "Hamez".

James Rodriguez was their best player against Greece, but offered a chance to single him out, Asprilla instead picked the Colombian goalkeeper Ospina. The feeling among Colombians was that while James was a vastly gifted young player who'd scored a goal and set one up, he'd not imposed himself consistently on the Greeks. There were flashes, but he could do better.

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The 22-year-old did do better as Colombia won all three group games. Of their eight goals scored while he was on the pitch in the group, James scored three and made four. His header against Ivory Coast and chip against Japan showed his versatility. The world began to notice the Monaco player, especially after he netted the goal of the tournament against Uruguay in the knock-out stage. From 25 yards he chested the ball down and volleyed the ball in off the cross bar. It was a ridiculous strike with wondrous technique. Oscar Tabarez, the Uruguay coach, likened him to a young Maradona, Messi and Suarez.

The world should have noticed the baby-faced winger/midfielder already. Perhaps not for making his Colombian league debut at 15 or becoming the youngest ever foreigner to start in Argentina's top-flight after he'd joined Banfield in the Buenos Aires suburbs two years later. He shone in the Copa Libertadores and joined Porto for €5 million in 2010. He was 18.

Porto won the league twice and, after a first season settling in, he was so good for Porto in all competitions including the Champions League that Monaco signed him for €45 million last year, making him the 10th most expensive player of all time. He cost €10 million more than the far better known Falcao. The ninth most expensive player is Zinedine Zidane, the 11th Sergio Aguero.

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Porto are not a village side, while Ligue 1 is not a Sunday league, as some Premier League obsessed anglophiles seem to believe. Rodriguez cost more than any player purchased by an English club last year bar Mesut Ozil, but the transfer was as under-reported in the UK as Montpellier's heroic title win of 2012.

English clubs had their chance to buy him. Manchester United were offered James for £5 million in 2010 but later signed Bebe. James was offered to the club again for €45 million last summer but considered too expensive.

James took a few months to settle, with Monaco coach Claudio Ranieri talking of problems with his mentality because he "thinks like an attacker but has to defend too". He finished the season with nine goals and 12 assists, more than anyone in the league. He also became the focus of the side after its star, his compatriot Falcao, ruptured his knee ligaments in January. He'd done the same for his country. Monaco finished second and will return to the Champions League next season. James will be there - unless he moves to a bigger club. He's now reached a sufficient profile for Real Madrid to be suitors - for they go for image as much as talent. Monaco's players are well remunerated and their tax free wages makes the club attractive, but can playing in front of their 9,000 average crowds compare with life at a far bigger club?

James' World Cup adventure ended against Brazil in the quarter-finals in Fortaleza, where he survived the attentions of a giant locust and aggressive challenges to be the game's best player. That more people wanted Colombia to triumph for their attacking abandon and joy than Brazil's grinding machine demonstrates his, and his team-mates’, impact on the competition.

James' second half was the best of the World Cup as he rode heavy Brazilian attention, and showed the character to keep creating chances. Brazil scraped through again and the player of the tournament went home. No, not Neymar, who also departs the tournament. It's sad for him and Brazil, but they lived by the sword with their aggressive approach and Neymar's World Cup died by it.

James Rodriguez ended the tournament in tears, but leaves with some impressive statistics. He became the first non-Brazilian or Argentinian to score six goals in the World Cup finals, the first player since Rivaldo in 2002 to score in the first five games of a World Cup.

The future is bright for a man who turns 23 on the eve of the World Cup final, but even if his career were to end now, he's done more than any other Colombian. He's been the best player in the World Cup finals.

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Andy Mitten (on Twitter: @AndyMitten)

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