In the heart of Madrid’s theatre and cinema district stands a colossal billboard with “James Rodriguez. Footballer” emblazoned upon an image of the Real Madrid midfielder.
A little farther up the capital’s glitzy Gran Via, Gareth Bale has an equally imposing digital display showing segments from his latest video campaign for Adidas.
The juxtaposition does not lack timely irony. James, static, his face etched in a grimace from a single shot. Bale, hooded training top pulled up, doing the things a professional footballer does.
In the Estadio Jose Alvalade, where Real Madrid earned a hard-fought 2-1 victory Tuesday evening over Sporting Lisbon that secured Real’s qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League, the scene was very similar: Bale was the focal point of Real’s attack as he has been increasingly of late, until he was forced off with an ankle injury. James, cutting a dejected figure, was on the bench.
The Colombia international was not even given the opportunity to warm up in Lisbon, despite Bale’s early exit. Marco Asensio replaced the Wales forward on 58 minutes, and as manager Zinedine Zidane turned to his bench twice more in the second half, his gaze did not alight on Real’s €80 million white elephant.
It was a depressingly familiar scenario for James. So far this season, he has played 499 minutes in all competitions, more only than Casemiro and Fabio Coentrao, who have been injured for the most part, and 45-minute striker Mariano Diaz. It is not an encouraging landscape for a player who arrived at the club in 2014 with the world at his feet after a Golden Boot-winning World Cup.
In his debut season at the Bernabeu, James set the place alight, recording 17 goals and 18 assists in all competitions as Real finally lifted the Decima. By contrast, last season, it appeared James was his own worst enemy. Then-manager Rafa Benitez left him on the bench for the opening match of the season against Sporting after the Colombian enjoyed an extended holiday after Copa America duty, and James subsequently featured more in the gossip pages than the sports pages due to his alleged appetite for Madrid’s nocturnal offerings and a reported high-speed chase with police one day on his way to training.
James did not endear himself to Benitez and the club by limping out of losses to Sevilla and Barcelona while playing the full 90 minutes for his country in World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Argentina in between.
It was not so much a case of who shot JR as James pointing the pistol at his own foot. Still, 2015-16 was not disastrous from the Colombian’s point of view. James ranked 15th in terms of minutes played, comfortably ahead of Lucas Vazquez, Mateo Kovacic and Nacho, who were then very much on the fringes of the first team, despite injury ruling him out for 10 matches.
James Rodriguez has had moments at Real this season, but it’s mostly been a disappointing campaign for the Colombian.
This season, the situation for James is on the verge of becoming irretrievable, and two things stand out in stark contrast to 12 months ago. First, James has knuckled down in training and been useful on the pitch when given the chance. He was one of the better performers when Real suffered their first setback of the season in the 1-1 draw with Villarreal but was then benched for the side’s next two La Liga fixtures.
Second, he has ceased to be a cause celebre among reporters keen to squeeze a headline out of Zidane. In recent weeks, James’ bench-warming has ceased to be newsworthy.
Asensio, Vazquez and Kovacic have firmly relegated James to the role of backup to the backups. Since the Villarreal game, he has featured for just 29 minutes in the league and has completed the full 90 only twice this season — and one of those was the Copa match against Cultural, in which he provided four assists.
Even Bale’s ankle injury, which will rule the Welshman out for several weeks, offers no glimmer of hope despite James being able to operate on either flank, behind the striker or in midfield. Not so long ago James was the fourth wheel on the BBC bandwagon. Now, with Zidane circling as the injury crisis mounts, the Colombian is on the outside looking in.
There were reports of an €85m offer for James in the summer, but the player expressed his desire to stay and fight for his place. Now that he has been reduced to shadowboxing on the bench, it might be time to reconsider the options at hand. Inter, AC Milan, Juventus, Manchester United, PSG … the list of likely suitors is not exactly bargain rack. If James Rodriguez, footballer, wants to be remembered as such, it is time he made a difficult choice and handed in a transfer request.
It would be a huge pity if Real Madrid sought to deny him a move on the basis of an ongoing transfer ban tangle and the club’s plans to expand their brand in Latin America with a proposed preseason tournament in Colombia next year. In his native country James remains a deity. At Real Madrid, he is rapidly becoming a model of discontent.