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This Is Just A Terrible Time To Be James Rodríguez

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Let’s just get this out of the way up front: James Rodríguez is still good at soccer. In 23 Premier League appearances with Everton last season, he racked up six goals and five assists and led the team in basically every significant attacking statistic despite playing in just over half of their games. He is no longer the superstar who blew the world away at the 2014 World Cup and booked his ticket to Real Madrid, but he is also not the kind of player who should be finding himself completely frozen out of his current team’s lineup and unable to find any team in Europe or South America willing to make a move for him. And yet that is exactly where Rodríguez is. How he ended up there has much more to do with an unfortunate alignment of circumstances than it does with his ability as a player.

Over the past few months, basically everything that could have gone wrong for Rodríguez has. But before then, things were pretty good. The Colombian arrived at Everton in the summer of 2020, in a move that was orchestrated by his beloved former coach at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti, who was then Everton’s manager. Though a star of Rodríguez’s caliber landing at little old Everton was a shocker on paper, a deeper look revealed an almost ideal union.

What Rodríguez offered his new club was obvious: Everton was an ambitious mid-table team in desperate need of some star power, and few players shine as brightly as Rodríguez. In the other direction, Everton offered this blazing star (along with lots and lots of money, naturally) a manager he deeply trusted who fully believed in him, who would grant him total freedom on the pitch, and who would even let Rodríguez decide just how much or how little playing time he wanted. This looked like a perfect environment for Rodríguez to reestablish his prominence after a couple mostly lost seasons, and earn his way back into the picture with the Colombia national team just in time for the Copa América. Which is more or less how things worked out.

Despite having his playing time limited by a series of nagging injuries, Rodríguez had a great individual year and proved that, even at age 30, even in spite of his trademark inconsistency and fitness issues, even in the most competitive league in the world, he was still capable of playing at an extremely high level. Ancelotti let Rodríguez end his club season a little early so that he could get back to Colombia and rest up for the Copa América, which was set to be the long-awaited reward to cap his comeback campaign.

That’s when things started to go wrong. Unexpectedly, Colombia left Rodríguez off of the Copa América roster entirely, releasing a statement claiming the player wasn’t physically fit enough to participate in the tournament. Rodríguez responded with a statement of his own, in which he said that while he was indeed in the final stages of recovering from a small injury, he was on track to be fully fit by the time the tournament started. He went on to express his shock and disappointment at not being selected.

Then, while Rodríguez was still stewing at home, things got even worse: Not only did Ancelotti stun everyone by bolting from Everton to retake the reins at Real Madrid, he was eventually replaced by Rafa Benítez, who also once managed Real Madrid during Rodríguez’s tenure there. The two did not get along!

It was this sequence of events that placed Rodríguez squarely in what we’ll call the Mesut Özil Zone, a state of limbo reserved for a specific kind of aging, idiosyncratic, and highly paid playmaker who has suddenly found themselves playing for a manager who has no desire to build the team’s structure around their particular skills. Rodríguez is a great player, but he’s also the kind of classically trained No. 10 who would find himself adrift if forced to play in a system that didn’t make significant efforts to cater to his attacking strengths and indulge his weaknesses elsewhere. Ancelotti was willing to make those efforts; Benítez, it appears, is not. That, coupled with the fact that Rodríguez only came to the club because of Ancelotti and Ancelotti has been replaced by a guy Rodríguez can’t stand, is why both the club and the player seem to be doing everything in their power to part ways as soon as possible.

Rodríguez is by no means the first player of his type to find himself in this situation (it’s called the Mesut Özil Zone for a reason, duh). But he has perhaps been plunged deeper into the Zone than usual. It is easy to imagine a slightly different reality than this one, in which the balance sheets of scores of big clubs around the globe weren’t drowning in the red due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in which Rodríguez is currently suiting up for, say, AC Milan or Porto or Atlético Madrid. Instead, we live in a reality in which Everton spent the summer desperately trying and failing to offload Rodríguez onto any team that was willing to pay his salary, which is onerously high even for major clubs outside of England.

Whereas in the aforementioned alternate reality it probably would have been quite easy for a big European club to toss Rodríguez’s wages onto the their tab and bet on him providing them with two dozen or so appearances and steady flashes of brilliance, the current circumstances have robbed basically all of those teams of their financial flexibility and appetite for risk. Which brings us to the depressing news that Rodríguez is currently in Qatar negotiating a move to Al Rayyan, which is about as far away from world soccer’s center stage as one can get.

All of this sucks quite a bit, and not just for Rodríguez. Any soccer fan who would like the sport to still have room for players like him has to be bummed by these developments. The last thing you need is one more soccer doofus moaning at you about the death of the No. 10, but allow me this: I watch a lot of soccer, and I watch a lot of Everton games, and aside from Romelu Lukaku, I personally have never seen a player in a blue shirt as capable of consistently producing magical moments as Rodríguez was last season. Every time his left foot touched the ball, I’d instinctively suck in my breath in preparation for whatever he was about to do with it. More often than not, he did something that left me exhaling in awe and appreciation.

The idea that a player like that, due mostly to circumstances beyond control, can’t find a better place to ply his trade than Qatar is one that makes me sad. There aren’t that many players like Rodríguez, and the opportunities to see them do cool shit on a soccer field get smaller and smaller every day.

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