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Colombia finally find leader to turn them into a headline act

Two-goal performance displays Rodríguez’ innate talent and precocious leadership

James Rodriguez of Colombia shoots and scores his team’s first against Uruguay at Maracana . Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

After an opening run-out in the provinces – Belo Horizonte, Brasília, Cuiabá – James Rodríguez saw his travelling World Cup show explode onto one of football’s most illustrious stages on Saturday night.

In Rio’s hallowed Maracanã stadium the Colombian playmaker confirmed his emergence as a player of rare talents, scoring two goals, of which the first will live long in World Cup memory, and so secured his side their first passage to the tournament’s quarter-finals.

Rodríguez was not exactly an unknown quantity before now, Monaco having paid €45 million for his services. But despite that enormous price tag he was still something of a prospect, having served his European apprenticeship in the Portuguese and Europa leagues. He was still to impose himself on the game’s global imagination like a Messi, Zlatan or CR7. He has now set about doing so as the conductor of arguably the team of the tournament so far.

His beautifully improvised goal against Japan in the final group game won rave reviews. But his first here on Saturday was of a higher order.

This was no longer a dead rubber stroll in Cuiabá against a defeated Japan but mata-mata – kill-kill as the Brazilians call knockout games – against a committed and streetwise Uruguay, a country which expects quarter-final appearances as part of its footballing birthright.

For all its abundance of technical talent, Colombia has often choked in this sort of game, its international record pitiful for a country with the resources at its disposal. But in Rodríguez they may finally have the player to turn them from a supporting act into a headliner.

Pressure After 27 cagey opening minutes his team was seeking to crank up the pressure, all 10 outfield players in their opponents’ half. But disciplined, tenacious Uruguay were holding their shape, denying them the crucial space in dangerous areas when Abel Aguilar headed the ball forwarded to Rodríguez just outside the area but with back to goal.

There was no immediate sense of danger, but this is a prime predator who sees when the kill is on before anyone else. He took the ball on his chest and then, lightening fast, on the turn, struck a sensational left-footed volley that dipped viciously before going in off the underside of the bar. The stadium erupted, neutrals along with Colombians, in recognition of sheer brilliance.

Afterwards Uruguay’s coach Óscar Tabárez, a widely respected reader of the game nicknamed the professor, said admiringly the goal brooked no argument, that his team was not guilty of any blame for it, belonging as it did “100 per cent” to the player who scored it.

‘Greatest goals’ “It was one of the greatest goals of this World Cup,” he said, going on to describe its creator as the tournament’s best player so far and then mentioning him in the same breath as Maradona, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez. “These players have certain gifts that make them special.

“I have seen him play football for a while and saw him play when he arrived in Argentina aged 17 and already then he showed a talent to do things that belied his lack of experience.”

Tabárez’s football-mad River Plate region was given an early introduction to his “certain gifts” when as a recently arrived 17-year old Rodríguez first became the youngest foreigner to play in the Argentine first division and then with a screamer into the top far corner against Rosario Central became the youngest foreigner to score in it. While there, he went on to help unfashionable club Banfield to its first ever national title and is still revered by the club’s fans.

It was a remarkable achievement for someone so young and so far from home, but since an early age Rodríguez is used to carrying the weight of heavy responsibility on his young shoulders.

Born in the city of Ibagué he and his mother were abandoned by his father, who was himself a former footballer who played for Colombia’s youth teams. Despite his father’s desertion, he inherited his passion for football which was fed by his stepfather who enrolled him in local youth teams.

There he caught the eye of wealthy drug-traffickers who still like to lavish money on the game. Having spotted him at a youth tournament, Envigado FC signed Rodríguez, and he moved with his family to the club near Medellín whose owners had links to right-wing paramilitaries and criminal gangs.

In striving to meet such high expectations so early he has revealed a central facet of his character. If his first goal against Uruguay owed everything to innate talent, the rest of Rodríguez’s performance highlighted what his coach Jose Pekerman classified as a maturity beyond his 22 years in its willingness to accept responsibility in high-pressure games. On the field he is a precocious leader for one so young, off it already a father after marrying the sister of Colombia’s goalkeeper David Ospina.

Absolute control For a World Cup rookie, he exuded experience as he glided across the storied Maracanã pitch, seeking out the pockets of space Uruguay’s willing runners had yet to close down, always providing an outlet for the man in possession, always prompting and probing, his close control of the ball absolute.

But unlike Neymar and Messi, whose own contributions to this tournament have often stood in contrast to those of their team-mates, Rodríguez is first among equals in a front four whose movement was at times mesmerising. He scored Colombia’s second goal – his fifth for the tournament – but it owed everything to this team ethic.

Uruguay, roundheads to their opponents’ cavaliers, responded valiantly but discovered that rumours of Colombia’s fragile defence were grossly exaggerated.

He was inevitably named man of the match and afterwards relished the prospect of a quarter-final against Brazil. “It will be a beautiful match and special to play in,” he predicted, sounding like a fully paid-up member of the game’s jogo bonito school.

But, asked about his performances at the tournament, he just shrugged “I’ve no notion of what I am achieving. I just want to help my team.”