Colombian wunderkind James Rodriguez came off the bench in Tuesday’s Spanish SuperCopa to net his first goal in a very expensive Real Madrid uniform.
It was his third appearance for “Los Blancos” after coming over to the defending Champions League-winners this summer in a gaudy $112 million transfer from Monaco. And after two previous lackluster showings, James picked a good moment to leave his initial mark on the team.
In front of a packed house at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium — squaring off against crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid, having come on for an apparently injured Cristiano Ronaldo, and sporting a pair of shiny new cleats commemorating his World Cup Golden Boot trophy — James found the net in the 85′ for the first goal of the game, putting Real up with just five minutes to play in the first leg of the Spanish SuperCopa, a preseason competition between the winners of the Spanish league and league tournament.
A poor clearance reached fellow summer signing Toni Kroos 15 feet out from the Atletico box. Kroos cut across goal and almost collided with James, before sliding in a through ball to a charging Daniel Carvejal, who laid off a one-time cross to Kareem Benzema in the middle.
Benzema’s touch got caught in the defense, deflecting around and falling, eventually, to James, who had been trailing the play from the beginning and made a passable effort at driving the ball with his right foot, a low, deflected shot that squirted through to the near post.
Atletico would come back and score a few minutes later, and one very drunk Spanish sportscaster went on to call James’ breakthrough “the ugliest goal in history” — at which point Miraslov Klose reportedly fell into a prolonged fit of jarring laughter, rupturing both kidneys and potentially ending his storied career.
“As time passes,” prohesized the commentator, his eyes rolling into the back of his skull, “they’ll remember it that way.” And so what?
It was not an especially attractive piece of soccer, but no one cares about those kinds of things anymore, except maybe Eduardo Galeano and whichever ad executive at Nike came up with Joga Bonito. No, it’s the results that count these days, and everything else is jersey sales.
Which isn’t exactly new, either. Ruud van Nistelrooy would have scored that goal and slid on both knees into the corner flag, and Brazilian Ronaldo would have flown in half the transgender sex workers in Rio that very night to celebrate.
In fairness, Ruud and Ronaldo didn’t cost nine figures in transfers, and they never used to trot new players out like show fillies and prance them around in front of 40,000 screaming fanatics before the first game had even been played. For better or worse, James has stepped straight into the eye of a media-driven vortex of Biblical proportions, a fast, relentless chaos of high expectations and close scrutiny.
In the span of two short weeks, the Spanish press has already gone from sending a small army of reporters to Colombia to write loving profiles of James’ childhood, to releasing opinion polls on whether or not he’ll be out on loan by Christmas. Not since the first Conquistas have so many Spaniards arrived at once to hunt through the Colombian countryside, but if this ridiculous corporate merger of a purchase doesn’t work out, for whatever reason, the Inquisition will look like a day at Disney World next to the things they’ll do to him in print.
James certainly has the talent, there’s no doubt about that. And given the pieces around him, the possibilities for how he’ll use it are tantilizing. Still, there is the lingering and not unsubstantiated fear that only a vapid mutant like Cristiano Ronaldo could possibly thrive under those sorts of conditions. Kaka was the last sensitive, rosy-cheeked playmaker to come to Madrid behind this much hype, and they say he is still not capable of so much as hearing the name Jose Mourinho without curling up in a ball and shaking violently.
It doesn’t help things that Carlo Ancelloti’s system does not really have room for a third attacking midfielder. Word has it that Ancelloti never really asked for the James signing, and even if James could outcompete Gareth Bale for an uncomfortable spot on the wing, the chances of him keeping it, with Di Maria also chomping at the bit and an already stacked midfield, are not very good.
In order for James to find real playing time, something has to give, which is not necessarily an attractive proposition on a proven machine of a side just coming off its first Champions League win in years. A potential Ronaldo injury would be the best scenario possible in that sense, but now you’re asking James to perform on an elite level without the team’s most effective weapon.
Either way, it’s going to be a tough, uphill trek for Colombia’s newest superstar. And with that in mind, you’ll take any goal that you can get.