A year ago when the last Copa América kicked off, we were hoping it would be the tournament where we could crown James Rodríguez as the best young playmaker in the world. He was coming off a wonderful season for Real Madrid, and had all the qualities you could possibly want to see in a number 10, with speed, technique, and flair galore. He'd been a star of the World Cup in 2014, willing Colombia to their wins and scoring five goals in as many matches.
Then Copa América actually started — and Rodríguez fell flat.
He wasn't bad by any means, but Rodríguez wasn't particularly impressive either. He failed to score a goal or register a single assist, and without his spark to help guide them, Colombia could only stumble through the tournament, finishing third in their group and getting eliminated in the first knockout round.
Those doldrums extended well into the season for Rodríguez, when hopes that Rafa Benítez could revitalize him and bring out the best in him came to nothing. He started well, yes, but then he got hurt. Zinedine Zidane ended up getting a bit more out of him later in the season, but the entire campaign felt like a big step back from where James had been the year before.
As the Copa América swings around again, with a bigger tournament field and more action to be had than the competition has seen before, the feeling around Rodríguez is starting to turn back to optimism. He looked like he was playing a little more freely again at the end of the year, without the weight of the world on his shoulders. If he's all the way back, it's not just a great thing for Rodríguez, but for fans of the game in general.
We don't have nearly enough players like James in the game right now — attacking midfielders who are so divinely talented and get how to use their talents. Who know how to make their teammates better, but not be afraid to take some shots for themselves when the opportunity is right. Those kinds of players are so much fun to watch when they're at their best, and when they struggle, it's absolutely heartbreaking to see.
But it's not just the fans who need him to reach his highest standard of play again, as much as they want to see more of those silky skills. Colombia need him as well.
Without Rodríguez at his dynamic best, Colombia are missing a major element of their team. They don't have another playmaker anywhere near as good as he can be, anywhere near as capable of taking over a game and giving his side complete attacking control. They've tried other players in that creative role at times both before and since he showed up on the national team scene, but only Rodríguez has proven capable of providing the impact Colombia needs to elevate their game to compete with the best national team sides around.
This is also something of a job interview for Rodríguez. He looks, for all intents and purposes, done at Real Madrid. The fit that was so wonderful when he first joined when Carlo Ancelotti was managing the team is no longer there, and it appears to be time for Rodríguez to move on. The better James does in the Copa, the more likely it is that a big team will come calling for him later on this summer instead of James settling for a lesser club — and perhaps if he does well enough he'll even get a chance to rejoin Ancelotti at Bayern Munich.
If Colombia are going to do well in the Copa América, they need James to play well. If their fans and neutrals are going to enjoy Colombia matches, they need James to play well. Everyone wants Rodríguez to be good again, to have fun, and to reach his incredible potential — now we just have to hope that this is his moment in the sun.