'James-mania' sweeps Colombia ahead of Brazil clash
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates after scoring his second goal during the 2014 World Cup round of 16 game between Colombia and Uruguay. Photo by Sergio Moraes, Reuters
IBAGUE, Colombia - Colombian youth coach Armando Yull Brenner never suspected he had found one of the world's greatest talents as he saw seven-year-old James Rodriguez dribble past teammates to score almost two decades ago on a shabby neighbourhood pitch.
What he did know was the boy could shoot goals.
"He had innate talent - he was a diamond, he only needed polishing," said Brenner, standing on the sidelines as a squad of youngsters, all hoping to become the next star, warmed up for a tournament in central Ibague city.
"From the first practices he showed his capacity, not just to play, but his goal-scoring," Brenner told Reuters, recalling the day young Rodriguez came to the soccer academy he founded in the city's working-class area.
The untrained player, known simply as James, pronounced 'Hamez' in Colombia, spent six years at the academy, honing enough skills to join Envigado, a second division team from Medellin, when he was still a young teenager.
Born in Cucuta, on the border with Venezuela, Rodriguez grew up in Ibague without his father, also a footballer, who left home when he was a boy.
While Brenner and other coaches reckon most of the striker's talent comes from focus and ambition, they also recognise that his talent is also part-genetic, handed down from his father, who once participated in a youth World Cup.
"He was the son of a great player, so even when he was only three, we would indulge him and pass the ball," said Jorge Luis Bernal, a family friend who coached Rodriguez's father and ran a team across the road from his childhood home.
Rodriguez, whose baby-face is instantly recognizable in the photos lining Brenner's office, is perhaps the biggest break-out star at this World Cup.
He and his teammates have whipped Colombia into a frenzy, charging through their group and into the last 16 with four wins out of four, and 11 goals scored.
Next they confront hosts and favourites Brazil in Colombia's first ever quarter-final on Friday.
The early scoring skills that so awed his childhood coach have served Rodriguez well in Brazil, where he has clocked five goals, more than any other player so far.
"He's on the cusp of becoming the most important footballer in Colombian history," said Brenner, who had an unexpected visit from Rodriguez at the academy two years ago.
The 'James-mania' sweeping Colombia is especially evident in the city where he first made waves as a precocious talent.
"He's our idol, our pride," said Eliceo Osorio, a 50-year-old judge standing outside Ibague's city hall, draped with a banner featuring a jubilant Rodriguez.
"We always believed he was better than Falcao," Osorio said, swelling with hometown pride, referring to Colombia's other star striker Radamel Falcao, forced out of the World Cup due to injury.
At the academy, which has a substantial waiting list for its 200 slots, rookies dream that a little Rodriguez magic will rub off on them.
"He's our star," said eight-year-old Juan Jose Barrios, before kick off at the sandy pitch under a blazing sun.
"We want to be the same as James," piped up teammate Juan Sebastian Bautista, seven, tugging at his crisply-laundered uniform.
As if to prepare their sons for future adulation, parents cheered wildly as a player scored a penalty.
"Gooooooooal," they screamed, as the ball shot into the net.
Ibague fans are confident their hometown wunderkind will do them proud against Brazil.
"We'll win three to one" said Jose Ruiz, a pensioner, sitting on a park bench in the colonial central plaza.
"James will score two, if not all three!"