Last week, James Rodríguez decided to move to Qatar to play for Al-Rayyan in the Qatar Stars League. Though he has only just turned 30—his birthday is in July—his career at the top of the game appears to be over. When I saw the news of his transfer, I thought of Ian, a dear friend of mine. A few years ago, Ian decided to climb Mount Everest for charity. His fitness levels, honed over many years as a personal trainer, were astonishing, and they needed to be. When he began his journey, the Sherpas, who typically assist climbers on their way up the mountain, told him that the accompanying storm was one of the worst that they had seen in decades. When Ian reached the summit, the conditions were so hostile that he was able to spend only a few minutes up there before climbing down again.
To be an elite athlete is a profession with brutal physical and emotional demands, and yet the peaks are so brief. Few of us can ever know how it feels to have dreamed of something for a lifetime, then have it gone so soon. It is the gift and curse of living a life defined by euphoric and explosive moments. For an Olympic sprinter, they may never again taste anything like the elation of crossing the finish line first; for a marathon runner in the same Games, nothing may ever match the roar when they enter the packed stadium ahead of the field. For them, there may be three stages of life: the long walk toward glory, the thrilling instant that glory is within your grasp, and then the slow, forlorn walk away.
For James, his peak arguably lasted just one year, beginning with Colombia at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Shortly before the tournament, Colombia lost talismanic forward Radamel Falcao to injury, leaving the nation in need of a new hero. James accepted the mantle in spectacular fashion, winning the tournament’s Golden Boot as its top scorer: He found the net six times in five games, helping Colombia to the quarterfinals, the best they had ever done at the World Cup. What’s more, his sublime strike in a 2-0 win over Uruguay was named not only the best goal of the tournament but the best goal scored anywhere in the world that year. James was still just 22, but he could not have known that summer was almost good as it would get. The following season he would be at Real Madrid, following a transfer from Monaco, and would be voted as the best midfielder in La Liga. After that, sadly, he fell out of favor with Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane and then fell foul of injury. Seven years later, despite the odd starring role here and there—most notably at Bayern Munich—he has never quite recaptured the consistently exhilarating form that he first showed on the greatest stage.
It seems that James’s greatest misfortune may have been to encounter Zidane as a coach, given Zidane was one of the greatest attacking midfielders of all time. It might be thought that, as a playmaker himself, Zidane would have been more indulgent of a player like James, who shared some of his characteristics: a certain free-spiritedness and a willingness to roam wherever he chose across the pitch. It is striking that Zidane never truly had a conventional no. 10 on whom he felt he could rely—not Isco (as superb as he was in the 2016-17 season), and not Martin Odegaard. Instead, he consistently preferred endlessly dutiful and hard-running midfielders in the mold of Lucas Vázquez and Federico Valverde. The problem was ultimately that while James had made his name for Porto, Monaco, and Colombia as a buccaneering folk hero, Zidane wanted someone who could do a desk job.
If anything, James’s fate shows just how perilous the ascent can be. He must have known, as Ian did, that if you lose your footing even momentarily, you can find yourself tumbling down the mountainside. Consider also the case of Oscar, who arrived at Chelsea in 2012 having become the first player to score a hat trick in the U-20 World Cup final, scoring all of Brazil’s goals as they defeated Portugal 3-2. Carlos Alberto, who captained Brazil to victory in the 1970 World Cup final, compared Oscar’s style and quality of play to his legendary teammate Gérson. Less than three years later, at the age of 25, Oscar left Chelsea to play for Shanghai SIPG (now Shanghai Port FC), long before reaching his expected peak. Oscar, like James, is a player whose playmaking gifts could have made him the centerpiece of an elite attack for many years. Yet, as his star began to falter, he received a contract offer that meant that several members of his family would never have to work so hard again.
With Oscar, England’s loss was China’s gain. With his departure, too, we were reminded just how quickly the game evolves, how quickly you can be usurped in the pecking order. Two years ago, Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi was being courted by no less than Bayern Munich, who saw him as the rarest of creative jewels. Today, Hudson-Odoi finds that he has been long since overtaken by Kai Havertz and Mason Mount as attacking threats, he did not find a place in the England squad for the Euro 2020 tournament, and he is struggling to start a game for his club. At such times, it seems that the remarkable durability of players such as, say, César Azpilicueta and Karim Benzema have spoiled us; footballers who are reliably excellent week in week out for years on end make us forget just how hard it is not only to rise to those heights but to stay there. Mere brilliance is not good enough.
There is something poignant, too, in how the brilliance of these players is the same thing that often contrives to make them obsolete. Years ago, attacking midfielders became so devastatingly effective in central areas that the only solution was frequently to put two defensive midfielders into the space they would usually occupy. Those attackers then either had to find space on the wing or drop into deep-lying roles, and those who could not adjust found themselves disregarded and discarded. Now, too, the physical demands of the game are such that a central creative player such as James or Oscar is expected to do a huge amount of defending and less of what they do best, which is organizing the attack. With fewer opportunities to display their craft, it is no wonder that they have found themselves at the margins of their squads. It is grimly ironic that such a richly rewarded player off the field should become such an endangered species on it.
Yet perhaps this is the wrong way to look at it. Maybe we should not lament the fact that they did not stand astride the game for long, but that they stood there at all. After all, while countless others gazed up enviously from the foothills below, at least James and Oscar successfully made the climb.