Colombia's James Rodriguez trying to steal Neymar's spotlight, eliminate Brazil

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports
James Rodriguez, most feared man for Brazil at Cup
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FILE - In this June 28, 2014, file photo, Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Never before has the star-crossed nation made the quarterfinals. There is even waxing poetic about World Cup unity accelerating the pace of 18-month-old peace talks to end a half-century of conflict that has claimed some 220,000 lives. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

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RIO DE JANEIRO – The man trying to ruin Brazil's World Cup run and overshadow its anointed hero is so new to soccer stardom that he doesn't even get his name pronounced correctly by play-by-play commentators.

Neymar reacts after the penalty shootout at the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Brazil and Chile. (AP)
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Neymar reacts after the penalty shootout at the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Brazil and Chile. (AP)

However, the biggest conundrum about Colombia's James Rodriguez isn't whether you should say his first name like "Jay-mz" or "Ham-ez." No, the far more pertinent question is how can it possibly be that he stayed under the radar for so long?

A World Cup is a boiled down affair of intense focus, so much so that a handful of whirlwind performances on the grandest stage of all can falsely inflate a player's reputation.

Even with that in mind, though, Rodriguez (now known universally as James, the moniker he wears on his shirt back, with the correct Ham-ez pronunciation) is a genuine star. He looks every bit the real deal, a contender for player of the tournament, and the main reason why many suspect host nation Brazil might be in danger of elimination in Friday's quarterfinal in Fortaleza.

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The individual attention foisted upon Rodriguez, who plays his club soccer for Monaco in the French league, might have been greater than for any other player over the past week apart from local golden boy Neymar, the face of expectation for a hungry country.

Rodriguez has been an icon in Colombia for a minute and more, and to a lesser extent in France since Monaco bought him from Portugal's Porto for $61 million just under a year ago.

Yet even that huge transfer did not catapult him into the global mainstream, perhaps a result of France's Ligue 1 being somewhat lower on the totem pole than other competitions such as Spain's La Liga or the English Premier League.

James Rodriguez (10) is lifted off his feat by his teammates following Colombia's 2-0 victory over Uruguay. (AP)
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James Rodriguez (10) is lifted off his feat by his teammates following Colombia's 2-0 victory over Uruguay. (AP)

Back home in Colombia, they love him in the kind of way that young, wealthy and ludicrously talented athletes tend to get loved, and his face adorns a small range of commercial products ranging from shampoos to soft drinks, as well as adidas.

By comparison, a Brazilian newspaper recently counted 17 companies that sponsor Neymar, but hey, the boy with the golden hair has had a few years' head start in the spotlight on the fellow 22-year-old in the golden shirt.

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One of soccer's more obvious but grotesquely overused generalizations is that it is a team game, not an individual one. In this case, though, the tired old cliché might apply a little less than usual.

Brazil has not looked especially convincing and Neymar has been enough of a standalone star to lead to suggestions that while this is not a one-man team, the hosts would be drastically less effective without him.

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Imagine the national panic in this soccer-mad nation then, when thigh and knee injuries sustained against Chile in the round of 16 put him in doubt for the quarterfinal clash with Colombia. The fears were ultimately unfounded and Neymar will start, in what is perhaps the biggest game of his career so far.

For Colombia, it all revolves similarly around Rodriguez, who has scored five of his team's 11 goals to sit one ahead of Neymar and Argentina's Lionel Messi as the tournament's top scorer.

The impact Rodriguez has made has been enough to make people forget all about Rademel Falcao, the star Colombian forward who missed the World Cup because of injury.

Friday's clash is one of the toughest to predict in the tournament. For neutral observers, it is a serious shame that one of these fine talents will be lost to the World Cup by the time the weekend starts.

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The world already knows about Neymar's flashiness and brilliance, but it's entranced by whether he can carry his country to the title on home soil that it so craves.

For Rodriguez, who soon might be popular enough that his surname is never even used, everyone wants to know a little more. Fame is in his future and another huge move to a club like Real Madrid or even alongside Neymar at Barcelona may not be far away.

If he can win this battle of the photogenic soccer heavyweights, it could happen sooner rather than later, and for more money.

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