On July 12, 1991, in the commercial Colombian city of Cúcuta, a star was born. With the imposing image of the magnificent Andes posing as the backdrop, James David Rodríguez Rubio opened his eyes upon the world for the very first time. Almost 23 years on, James is ascending his own mountains with frightening speed.
Born in Cúcuta but raised in the cosmopolitan city of Ibagué, famous for its music, James's emergence as Colombia's poster boy has coincided with the country's rebirth as one of football's superpotencias. Manager José Pékerman is composing a new chapter in Colombia's history with an orchestra that plays football the beautiful way.
Colombia's success at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil was a refreshing sight for Los Cafeteros supporters, as well as the millions of neutral watchers they managed to entice during their march to the quarter-finals. Colombia's journey was all the more prominent given their absence from the finals since a disappointing effort in 1998, which saw them bow out of a group that included England. After a 16-year hiatus into the global wilderness, Colombia's resurrection has not come a moment too soon.
Football is not the only beneficiary of James's goals and Colombia's dynamism on the pitch. Colombia endures a daily struggle to fight against a dark reputation as a cartel-fuelled country that is bursting with violence, a crime which has infiltrated its football in the past. The country still mourns the death of Andrés Escobar, a former defender for Los Cafeteros who was murdered in his home town of Medellín just days after his own goal against the United States at the 1994 FIFA World Cup cost Colombia a place in the knockout stages. The attack was seen as 'punishment' for Escobar, and is an incident that still inflicts great pain on a nation heavily dependent on football to bring joy and happiness to its people.
James, therefore, may be the perfect antidote to the venomous opinion the world has of Colombia, a suggestion that gathered a great deal of support throughout the previous three weeks. The World Cup's leading goalscorer approached every game with tremendous energy, awesome athleticism and world-class skill. James was only two years old when news of Escobar's death stunned the world, and he plays with a freedom that belies the troubles his nation bears. So often, talented footballers are heralded as their nation's saviours from political and social conflicts. Having grown up in one of Colombia's wealthiest cities, perhaps the frailty of happiness in his country holds little residence in James's life.
James's approach to the game echoes that of Colombia's style; quick, fearless, dynamic and direct. With a plethora of attacking options at their disposal, it would be impractical to play any other way. James is the face and future of Colombian football now, but Juan Cuadrado, Pablo Armero and Juan Camila Zúñiga have played no small part either. Cuadrado's pace is frightening, and the two wing-backs have provided extra attacking impetus out wide as well as playing a crucial role in freeing up space for James to strut his stuff. Lest we forget, Colombia are without Radamel Falcao, a talisman of the highest quality and fervour. Jackson Martínez still struggles to get a game.
But while there is youth, there is also experience, and for all of James's fresh-faced exuberance, Faryd Mondragón is a weathered reminder of Colombia's treacherous past. At 22 years of age, Mondragón was a part of the 1994 FIFA World Cup squad alongside Escobar, and his tears at the end of Colombia's 1998 campaign are one of the more striking images in recent history. One imagines the fear of returning home was too much for Mondragón to contain.
Mondragón is 43 now. He retired upon Colombia's exit from the Brazil finals and left behind a very strong legacy for David Ospina to continue. Although he played just 56 times in 21 years for Colombia, Mondragón has served as the final thread between Colombia's previous golden generation and their current one. His late appearance in Colombia's final group game at this summer's tournament was laden with emotion. It was both a throwback to the 1990's, when Colombia were regular participants in major tournaments and enduring a torrid period of social degradation, and a stride toward the future. Colombia's ties with the past have at last been severed.
It is symbolic that the end of Mondragón's career has coincided with the beginning of Colombia's ascent towards the higher echelons of world football. Off the pitch, they still face myriad social and economic issues, but it is down to football and James Rodríguez to provide respite from a painful past and a precarious future. The nation finally has something else to turn to for happiness. Football is back in Colombia.