From Real reject to Maradona-like rebirth at Napoli? James can become an icon again

James Rodriguez Diego Maradona Napoli
There will never be another love affair like the Argentine's with Naples but the Colombian could help the Partenopei get over recent betrayals

Even on a side-street as chaotic and crowded as Napoli's Via San Gregorio Armeno, with its numerous stalls and shops, it is impossible to miss the life-size bust of Diego Maradona among the vast array of figurines on display.

The effigy, replete with an ornate, golden crown, is accompanied by the words 'Maradona and his grandchildren'.

The message is clear: El Pibe d'Oro is the King of Naples; everything can be traced back to him.

Arguably never in the history of football has a city fallen so madly in love with a player, as Asif Kapadia's recently released documentary on the Argentine’s time in Italy so captivatingly illustrated.

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It is a never-ending love affair between a player and a people that were simply made for one another; the kid from the shantytowns of Buenos Aires fit right in among a people beset by economic injustice and prejudice.

We will never see its like again, of course. But perhaps Naples and James Rodriguez are also made for one another.

They certainly need one another.

James was the gifted No.10 with the boyish good looks who captured hearts across the globe with his scintillating displays and spectacular goals at the 2014 World Cup for Colombia.

He has never again felt quite so loved.


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Having become a Galactico that very summer following his €80 million move to Real Madrid, James looked set for superstardom.

However, after a promising first season under Carlo Ancelotti that yielded 17 goals in all competitions, he quickly became a bit-part player at the Santiago Bernabeu under Zinedine Zidane – who found James ponderous in possession – and the Colombian was allowed to join Bayern Munich on loan in 2017.

Once again, he excelled during his first campaign in Bavaria but featured only sporadically during his second, after falling out of favour with Niko Kovac.

As a result, he finds himself at a crucial juncture in his career ahead of his 28th birthday next month. If he is to finally make the most of his obvious talent, he cannot afford to get his next move wrong.

Napoli, though, look like the right club, with the right coach, in the right city and at the right time.

Naples is hurting right now.

They have suffered an almost unbearable amount of heartbreak in the past few years.

Napoli helped Gonzalo Higuain rebuild his career at the San Paolo, inspiring him to break the Serie A goals record for a single season, in 2015-16, only to see him depart for their most hated rivals, Juventus.

One local priest even used the transfer as a subject for a homily, pleading for his congregation to forgive and forget. His prayers, unsurprisingly, fell on deaf ears.

Higuain is a despised figure in Naples. Indeed, just to the right of the Maradona bust on Via San Gregorio, one can find another of Higuain dubbed 'El Traditor' (‘The traitor’).

A similarly offensive nickname may soon be bestowed upon Maurizio Sarri, the former Napoli coach who coaxed that record-breaking season out of Higuain, and was taken in by Neapolitans as if he were one of their own.

Consequently, they have been left horrified by the Tuscan’s decision to become a member of the establishment he had previously attempted to destroy by taking charge of Juventus this summer.

Sarri, of course, spent last season at Chelsea. He didn't go directly to Turin. But that matters little to Neapolitans.

Gonzalo Higuain Maurizio Zarri Napoli

When it was pointed out to actor and Napoli fan Massimiliano Gallo – who narrated a documentary on Sarri released earlier this month – that one cannot expect a man to remain faithful to his ex-wife a year after the divorce, he countered, "Yes, but you have to think of the children!"

Napoli fans are, thus, crying out for a new idol. James fits the bill.

He is obviously no Maradona but, just like his fellow South American, he will arrive to much fanfare and in need of affection.

Maradona felt mistreated at Barcelona, on and off the field. In Naples, he was greeted like a messiah and it empowered him to perform miracles.

James’ arrival won’t provoke anything like the same hysteria. But it will nonetheless be welcomed with open arms by success-starved fans and, most of all, by Ancelotti.

It is no coincidence that James' troubles in Madrid started immediately after the Italian coach’s departure in 2015.

Granted, James flourished during his first season in Germany – he created 100 chances in 2017-18, more than any other Bayern player – even after the Bavarians' decision to sack Ancelotti as coach just over a month into the campaign.

That was primarily because the Italian's successor, Jupp Heynckes, rated James just as highly. He was willing to overlook the attacking midfielder's negligible defensive contribution and play to his strengths.

A disciplinarian such as Kovac was never going to do likewise and James started just 19 games last term.

James – who settled quickly in Bavaria and became the most active and enthusiastic member of the Bayern players' Whatsapp group – actually improved his output from a defensive perspective but his fate was effectively sealed by his ineffective performance in the Champions League last-16 second-leg loss to Liverpool at the Allianz Arena.

On that evening, James showcased his increased work-rate but it came at a cost; he offered nothing going forward.

He was slated for his lack of creativity but Kovac's counter-attacking style simply didn't suit his game at all. It was clear that he could only function in a Bayern side built around him.

Luckily, that is exactly what Ancelotti intends to do at the San Paolo.

James Rodriguez Carlo Ancelotti De Laurentiis Napoli PS

There has already been talk of the return of his beloved 'Christmas tree' formation, with James stationed on the right-hand side, behind a central attacker.

It is a ploy that is certainly working well for Colombia at the Copa America, with the 27-year-old having already racked up two delightful assists in two starts to date.

Evidently, there is still time for James to unlock his colossal potential, and Ancelotti is the key.

Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has made no attempt to hide the fact that his coach is the driving force behind the deal.

"I don't know how much he 100 per cent answers our needs,” he admitted, “but we certainly can't put his skill in doubt. At a certain point, one must then empower his coach.

"James Rodriguez fits the image of what Carlo Ancelotti wants.”

As a talented No.10 desperately seeking an adoring public, he also fits the image of what Napoli want right now too.

De Laurentiis knows that too, which is why image rights are believed to be such a key part of the negotiations with James' camp.

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As a film producer, he is well aware that James has the talent and the personality to become an icon at the San Paolo.

There will never be another Maradona. He will always be the true king of Naples. But James could at least prove a worthy heir to the throne.