When James Rodriguez was four years old, he wanted to be a footballer, and so his mother bought him his first football. At the time, however, his hero wasn’t Freddy Rincón or Pibe Valderrama, the heroes of the 1990s Colombian team, but Oliver Atom, the protagonist of Japanese TV series Supercampeones (originally Captain Tsubasa), an anime chronicling the adventures of a youth football team.
Now, 18 years later, James Rodriguez has far eclipsed Oliver Atom, sitting alone at the top of the World Cup scoring charts with five goals and two assists in four games, above global superstars such as Neymar and Messi.
And what goals they have been! Such sublime beauty, vision, and control. His goal against Uruguay in the last 16 is surely one of the goals of the tournament, taken with such control and precision that it seemed a victory over gravity itself. He received the ball from a perfectly controlled header after a clumsy Uruguayan clearance, and suddenly, out of nothing, within two touches, the ball was flying into the back of the net. The ball’s movement from his chest to his left foot was seamless, as if it were always meant to do so, as if nothing were more natural. That it grazed the crossbar on its way into the goal, a hair’s breadth above the goalkeeper Muslera’s fingertips, made it all the more perfect, hinting at how nearly it could have gone awry, how precisely controlled it was.
James’ second goal against Uruguay was not the sublime individual effort his first was, but the ultimate team goal. Pedro Armero played a lovely cross into the box to Cuadrado, who did not try to head the ball into the goal, like most players would have at that distance. Instead, he timed it perfectly to land exactly at James’ feet, who slotted it in easily. It highlighted just how exciting this Colombian team is, and why many neutrals will be rooting for them against Brazil in the quarterfinals. It’s not just their goal celebration dance, which is enough to win hearts across the globe, but their passion and their fearlessness. They’ve scored the most goals of any team this tournament, and they’ve reveled in each one. And within the past month, James Rodriguez has gone from unknown talent to a household name, a star on the biggest stage there is.
No matter how far they go, this Colombian team has already made history. They are the first side from their country ever to make it to the quarterfinals, and they’ve done it in style. After the final whistle against Uruguay, when their date with Brazil was confirmed, James barely celebrated. He stood alone on the field, his face serious, his eyes gazing up at the scoreboard, his mind already on the next challenge. Neymar and Brazil await. It will be a difficult test, but even if Colombia go out, James Rodriguez has sealed his place as the best player of this tournament.
Elaine Teng is the managing editor of The New Republic.