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Copa America

Everton's Colombia outcast James Rodriguez facing uncertain future for club and country

11:00 GMT+3 20/06/2021
James Rodriguez Everton Colombia
With Carlo Ancelotti returning to Real Madrid and having been dropped from the national team, there are many questions for the forward to answer

One of the more curious stories to emerge from the Copa America so far concerns a Miami-based Colombian family who, upon learning that the tournament would be moved from their nation of birth, quickly changed their tickets to arrive in time for the Cafeteros' first match in Brazil.

Unfortunately, Julia Calderon was unaware that all of the Copa games would be behind closed doors, leaving her and her two children to cheer on Colombia from outside the ground. In truth, there has been little to cheer from the team coached by Reinaldo Rueda thus far.

A turgid 1-0 win over Ecuador to kick off their Group B campaign was a sign of things to come as the nation tried and failed to smash a way past inspired Venezuela goalkeeper Wuilker Farinez and were held to a goalless draw by the Covid-depleted Vinotinto.

Creating and finishing chances has proven to be a problem over the first two games and murmurs have already begun around the Colombia camp with star absentee James Rodriguez adding more fuel to the fire.

James paid the price for the injury nightmare and the resulting drop-off in form he suffered throughout 2021 as his impressive start to life at Everton ultimately turned to disappointment.

Even so, it was a big surprise to see Rueda cut him from his Copa plans at the last minute and the playmaker has been among the most vocal opponents of that decision.

“I want to make it clear I was fit to play the Copa America,” James fired on Instagram, directly contradicting the words of Rueda, who had assured that his exclusion owed to medical reasons.

“It was the coaching team's decision: I respect it, but I don't agree, because I was disrespected. One thing is for [Rueda] to say, 'I'm not taking you because I don't like you as a player'. If that's the case I can shut my mouth and leave.”

While James enjoys his unexpected summer holiday, sunning himself in Miami and attending reggaeton superstar Karol G's lavish Medellin party, reaction to his incendiary comments has been fierce.

Even Colombia legend Faustino Asprilla, a staunch defender of the No 10, was forced to admit to ESPN that the 2014 World Cup hero had made a “mistake".

Ex-goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba and midfield star Fredy Rincon both took exception to James' claims that the previous generation of Cafeteros have been too harsh with their comments towards the current team.

One of his fiercest critics was retired journalistic icon Ivan Mejia Alvarez. “He would have looked more intelligent keeping quiet,” the 70-year-old fired on Twitter. “That pride is what leads him to fight with all his coaches. Reynaldo [sic] did a good job.”

On current form at least, it cannot be argued that Rueda, who has vast experience at international level having previously coached Honduras, Ecuador and Chile, was obliged to take James to Brazil.

He enjoyed a dream start to life in the Premier League under long-time mentor Carlo Ancelotti, racking up three goals and three assists in his first five games as Everton looked to be early challengers for a Champions League spot.

That early form tailed off and just three more league goals and a solitary assist followed, as well as prolonged spells on the sidelines with fitness issues. The Toffees suffered accordingly, eventually slumping to a 10th-place finish far from European qualification.

With Ancelotti back at Real Madrid, the club which was so happy to see the back of James just 12 months ago, and Rafa Benitez, with who he suffered a turbulent relationship in the Spanish capital, on the verge of taking over at Goodison Park, his club prospects do not look any rosier than his international future.

Colombia may yet regret not picking their star name. Sunday sees Rueda's men take on Peru in Group B, before they meet with the formidable host nation Brazil three days later in their last game of the opening round. Qualifying for the knockout stages should not be an issue, unless they fall to defeat in both these matches.

However, once the quarter-finals start, strong opponents such as Argentina - who were very unlucky to be held to a 2-2 draw in June's World Cup qualifier thanks to a last-minute Miguel Borja equaliser - Chile and Uruguay lie in wait.

Rueda's side are strong enough at the back, only conceding to Argentina in their four games so far in 2021.

Further up the pitch though, they suffer from a certain lack of imagination, relying on the intermittent spark of Boca Juniors' Edwin Cardona and Juan Cuadrado's trademark bursts out wide to inject life into an otherwise workmanlike team.

That shortage of attacking options could come back to hurt them once the Copa reaches its crucial stages and they have certainly made for a tough watch so far.

Nevertheless, if James had come along for the ride it is clear that it would have been by virtue of past reputation rather than anything he has shown in the last six months.

Rueda and his coaching team most likely feel vindicated by the player's subsequent outbursts as they prioritise team cohesion over individual talent.

It is hard not to conclude that the 29-year-old has allowed his emotions to get the better of him in picking a fight with his boss. That, along with injury and a certain amount of ill-fortune, has consistently stopped him from becoming the world-class footballer he clearly could have been.