RIO DE JANEIRO — When Saturday’s Round of 16 game between Colombia and Uruguay ended, the narrative had changed.
A pre-game that had been dominated by talk of the suspension of Uruguay striker Luis Suarez quickly shifted to the emergence of Colombian midfielder James Rodriguez, who scored two goals in Colombia’s decisive 2-0 win.
Colombia will meet Brazil in the quarterfinal on Friday, its first-ever trip to that round.
Rodriguez’s dominance at the World Cup — he now leads all goal scorers with five goals — isn’t a shock to those who followed his past season at AS Monaco, but few expected him to be the leader of a team that was definitely a question mark coming into the tournament after star player Radamel Falcao was left off the roster after failing to recover from knee surgery.
But James, who is just 22 and playing in his first World Cup, has had no trouble embracing the spotlight. In Colombia’s four games this tournament, he has two assists to go along with his five goals and has become one of the main offensive threats of the tournament. And he may have scored the goal of the tournament in the first half of Saturday's game.
He came into the game in relative anonymity thanks to Suarez’s suspension sopping up the headlines. And for as offensively potent Rodriguez made Colombia, Suarez’s absence made Uruguay offensively inept. Colombia dominated possession until midway through the second half when, with a 2-0 lead, it dropped back on defense and allowed Uruguay to dictate the pace of play. But even when Uruguay had chances, most were sent off target or straight to Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina.
The lack of Uruguayan offense wasn’t much of a surprise considering Suarez had scored two of the team’s four goals and one of the other two was a penalty kick. The only quality goal Uruguay scored sans Suarez was a header from Diego Godin that gave Uruguay a 1-0 win against Italy.
Forward Diego Forlan, who was the top scorer of the 2010 World Cup, had been invisible most of the World Cup and that didn’t change in Suarez’s absence.
Colombia’s win coupled with Rodriguez’s newfound international fame has placed the Colombians squarely in the soccer spotlight, especially with a game against Brazil coming up.
This tournament has basically bucked Colombia’s World Cup trend. Its last trip to the Round of 16 in 1990 resulted in a 2-0 loss to Cameroon in extra time. It’s only qualified twice since then and won two games total prior to this year’s run.
But Colombians fans were all smiles as time ticked down on the game and Uruguay’s season, as they serenaded the men in light blue with “eliminados” or “eliminated.” It was a disappointing ending for a Uruguayan team that finished fourth in 2010, but an exciting new beginning for a Colombian team that’s already making history of its own.