James Rodriguez’s pass to send Juan Cuadrado through on goal for Colombia’s third goal was so beautiful and profound that not finishing it would have counted as an act of iconoclasm.
Rodriguez had attracted the attention of Poland’s defense so much while dribbling down the left side of the field that he was covered by three defenders, with Poland’s last defender also watching him. When he made the pass, even the fullback that was responsible for Cuadrado on the opposite side was caught by surprise.
The pass itself, under pressure and with so much power that Rodriguez almost lost his balance afterwards, found Cuadrado in stride as if it had been guided by fate rather than the left foot of Rodriguez.
The only unfortunate thing about the pass to Cuadrado was that it eclipsed Rodriguez’s pass to Yerry Mina for Colombia’s first goal — a delightful curling chip that forced the goalkeeper out and set Mina up for a simple header a few years away from the goal.
#MundialTelemundo Así lo narró ️ @AndresCantorGOL : ¡Llega el primero de #COL! Un bonito centro de @jamesdrodriguez que hace que Yerry Mina se eleve para rematar de cabeza #POL 0-1 #COL pic.twitter.com/Gw8NKw7UmS— Telemundo Deportes (@TelemundoSports) June 24, 2018
As soon as the game started, it was obvious that Poland wanted it to be a fight rather than a competition of skills. Poland were the less talented team, dependent on the abilities of one striker — Robert Lewandowski — and needed the game to become nothing more than a physical contest in order to have some success. For most of the game, it was.
Colombia aren’t a team that can be easily pushed around. They responded to Poland’s aggression with their own, and both teams spent most of the first half tugging at each other, writhing on the ground from hard tackles and appealing to the referee for fouls that they felt should have been called. That is, until the 40th minute when Rodriguez, put the ball in for Mina to finish.
Rodriguez is a difference maker. Whether through scoring or assisting, he finds a way to be critical for Colombia. The best thing about him is that he will do so even when there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable route to score or make a pass. He’s in the class of players that’s so talented they’re often described as “magical,” because they’re capable of doing things that other professionals — other great players, even — aren’t capable of doing. The number of players who have both the ability and audacity to try the pass that James played to Mina is small. Even smaller is the number of individuals who could find Cuadrado with a pass of the perfect weight under the pressure that Rodriguez was under.
In 2014, Colombia were one of the most fun stories of the World Cup, and a big reason for it was because of Rodriguez. He won the golden boot for the World Cup by scoring six goals. He scored headers, penalties, clinical finishes inside the box, deft chips after turning a defender inside-out and breathtaking long-range rockets. Colombia needed someone to step up and lead them, with Radamel Falcao missing out due to injury, and Rodriguez did so in the most spectacular fashion.
Rodriguez was only able to come on late in the eventual 2-1 loss against Japan because of fitness issues. Colombia were down a man and Japan were playing well, but Colombia were not Colombia without Rodriguez.
Far from a luxury player, he is their heartbeat. He is the person who embodies their style. When play is going through him, when he’s all over the field passing, dribbling and being dangerous, Colombia seem almost unstoppable.
But Rodriguez doesn’t need to be catered to. His attacking qualities do not mean that he needs to be covered for by his teammates. When Poland wanted a fight, he was in the thick of things, pressing, tackling and winning the ball back to help his team.
There was a sequence at the end of the Poland game that captured the player that Rodriguez is. When Colombia were running the time out, Rodriguez elicited oohs and ahhs from the crowd after dribbling past two players. He then passed the ball to his teammate with a backheel that the crowd clapped for.
But just as important was what came after that. He hunched over with his hands on his knees, clearly exhausted. As Poland won the ball back and started to attack down his side, Rodriguez straightened up and started pressing to win the ball back.
Rodriguez is perfect for Colombia. Even though he looks like a chubby-limbed cherub, he’s as hard-working as everyone else. Yet he can also make what is impossible to the rest of us, seem utterly routine. Against Poland, Rodriguez fought, and when Colombia needed someone to step up, to separate them from their opponents, he again made the difference with his magic.