James Rodríguez is enjoying a stunning revival with Colombia at Copa América

Luis Díaz was unable to control his excitement — and tears — when talking about James Rodríguez, the key player in Colombia’s journey to the Copa America final against Argentina on Sunday.

“From the moment I arrived at the national team, I let him know that he has always been my idol,” Liverpool winger Díaz said. “I grew up watching him.”

Such is the admiration that the midfielder, who turns 33 on Friday, attracts within the Colombian camp.

The 27-year-old Díaz was a teenager when James proved a sensation at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where he won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and moved from Monaco to Real Madrid.

But for this Copa América, little was expected of James. He arrived in the United States after a poor season at Brazilian club Sao Paulo, where he ended up being an afterthought and appeared to be on his way out of there.

Colombia’s aspirations of a second Copa title were placed on the shoulders of Díaz, along with Jefferson Lerma and Daniel Muñoz, another couple of players in England’s top flight.

Few expected that James, despite his prodigious left foot and craftsmanship on the field, would once again be the stepping stone for Colombia in a major tournament after disappointing stints with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Everton, among other European clubs.

But Colombia coach Néstor Lorenzo put his faith in him and James has rewarded that by reemerging as, arguably, the best player at the tournament, establishing himself as the main focus of a team that will play defending champion Argentina at Miami Gardens, Florida, in the championship match.

It will be Colombia’s first Copa final since winning the title as host in 2001.

“I have been here for almost 13 years, wanting this very much,” said James, recalling an international career that began in September 2011. “We are happy.”

James has a goal (a penalty) and six assists at this edition of the Copa América. The sixth — in the 1-0 victory against Uruguay in the semifinals — helped him surpass Lionel Messi’s record (5 in 2021) for the most goal assists in a single edition of the tournament since records began to be kept in 2011.

James will meet Messi in Sunday’s final.

“I want to be champion. We know that they are a super complicated opponent, that they have experience playing in finals,” James said.

With his superlative performances in the past few weeks, a question has again been raised: What makes James shine so much when wearing the yellow jersey of Colombia?

Brazil coach Dorival Júnior, who managed him in Sao Paulo, said that the transformation is because James feels comfortable in a known environment.

“He really feels so good wearing the Colombian national team jersey… it’s impressive in every aspect,” Dorival said ahead of Colombia’s 1-1 draw with Brazil at Copa America. “This is very interesting, because some players play well in their clubs and do not perform well on their national teams, the opposite happens with James. He feels very good and integrated into a group that respects him, embraces him and make him feel more important.”

Since he took over as Colombia’s coach in 2022, Lorenzo has not hesitated to make James an important piece of his project.

“With me he has nothing, simply that he has continuity and has a great commitment,” Lorenzo said before the semifinal against Uruguay. “With the national team it has always been the same, when a great player has minutes, it gives him the opportunity to show what he can do. If you give him just a few minutes you have little chance.”

The result? Colombia has just broken its unbeaten record that had lasted three decades by going 28 straight games without a loss.

James is aiming for more.

“The most important thing is still missing, which is to play that grand final,” he said.

And win it. ___

AP Copa America coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/copa-america

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