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James Rodriguez: Out of the frying pan, into the fire?

Wednesday 12th July 2017
Elite players aren't often loaned out. World Cup Golden Boots are rarely told their club has better options. Welcome to James Rodriguez's world.

That is exactly the message the Colombian international has been hearing for the past 18 months at Real Madrid. Such words are difficult to accept even when coming from a bigger World Cup legend than yourself.

At first, Rodriguez chose not to accept them, to fight for his place. When it became evident he was fighting a losing battle, James quietly affirmed he would accept a transfer in order to play regularly. Concerned with his depth in attacking midfield, Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane ignored the player's wishes until Isco cemented his place.

Finally, this week, Los Merengues hashed out a deal with Bayern Munich for a two-year loan. James will be reunited with the manager who was happy to have him in the Spanish capital: Carlo Ancelotti. The extraordinary arrangement was made possible both by Bayern's creativity and the player's relative discretion, earning accolades all around.
While obviously dissatisfied with his lot, the former Monaco starlet largely kept his own counsel. When he did speak, he couched his words in tones respectful to the club. Nor did he allow his agent to act as a dissident by proxy. If he had, in some unimaginable, miraculous manner, reclaimed his starting role, there would be no need for embarrassing apologies such as those Marco Veratti and Yaya Toure felt obligated to issue to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City respectively. Projecting humility and class meant Rodriguez would not be required to swallow his pride.

Despite his prodigious talent, relative inaction for a year and a half has significantly slowed James' development. No club under competent executive management was going to risk the fee Real Madrid was demanding. Anything north of €50 million was incomprehensible for a bench player, even if that bench held such world class talent as the one at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Happily for the player, Bayern Munich is perhaps the most competently run club in all football. Its board knows every trick and can invent new ones when needed. It ably identifies young talent ahead of its competitors, raids its Bundesliga challengers when beaten to such prospects, and does business with the biggest clubs in Europe without being intimidated or breaking the bank.

Patiently, discreetly, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's delegates negotiated an unusual two-year loan, reportedly at €5 million per season, with a 2019 option to purchase the player for an additional €35 million. Assuming James comes good, that's €45 million plus wages for a player which Los Blancos paid AS Monaco €81 million. If he doesn't, then the Rekordmeister will only lose €10 million by letting him go. With apologies to Bayern's Bavarian neighbours, BMW, you can't lease a Mercedes S class on better terms.
Immediately after the deal was announced, both Manchester United and Chelsea informed independent journalists Sam Luckhurst and Matt Law all the rumours linking the Premier League rivals to the playmaker had been nothing but smoke.

The terms Real Madrid accepted from Bayern may suggest no other suitors existed. On the other hand, it's just as possible RM President Florentino Perez sought maximum value from English clubs swimming in television revenues only for his hardball tactics to bounce back in his face. The nice thing about high level negotiations, from an executive perspective, is they occur behind closed doors. It's easy for a club to save face when losing out by denying it was ever in the game.

In United's case, it's easier to believe they were less interested in James, which, it should be stressed, is not the same as completely disinterested. The Red Devils prefer their attacking mids to come dressed in hard black leather rather than fine silk, although they have occasionally tried to go the high society route.

The Manchester giants were heavily linked to Inter's Wesley Sneijder in 2011, with £35 million touted as the fee by numerous sources. The deal never materialised. Earlier, Diego Forlan had arrived but never truly fit into Sir Alex Ferguson's system.

More recently, Jose Mourinho completely isolated an aged--though still effective in the few minutes he was given--Bastian Schwiensteiger. Mou was more comfortable with the defensive responsibility Michael Carrick offered from a deep lying position than the German's more naked aggression.

The Portuguese also pushed the classy Juan Mata to the brink of revolution when throwing him on late in the 2016 Community Shield, then subbing him off in added time. The insult promised the same treatment under Mourinho that had led to the reigning Chelsea Player of the Year's January sale after the manager returned to Stamford Bridge.
United is filled with big attacking players who love to take on defenders: Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial, and now Romelu Lukaku. They could use a calm, collected playmaker who can rein in that whirlwind, directing it with far more effect than in Mourinho's debut campaign, when Mata (11) and Mkhitaryan's combined 21 goals as United's 2nd and 3rd most prolific scorers amounted to just 75% of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's injury curtailed total. James would have been ideal. Yet, silk has never been United's trade, even when Paul Scholes patrolled Old Trafford's midfield.

Antonio Conte also values rough grafters, usually starting N'golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in tandem at the elegant Cesc Fabregas' expense. When he did humour the pro-Cesc crowd, gifting the Catalan a start against relegation threatened Crystal Palace, the move resulted in an embarrassing home defeat.

Then again, Conte did engineer David Luiz's return from exile with PSG. Although an attacking midfield mind trapped in a centre half's bowlegged body, the Brazilian functioned brilliantly as the fulcrum in the Blues' transition from defence to attack. Eden Hazard also rejuvenated his flagging career under the Italian. It's difficult to believe Chelsea weren't at least curious regarding Rodriguez.

The other sufficiently well-heeled club rumoured to be in the market, Paris Saint-Germain, eventually settled their differences with Marco Veratti. Bayern saw its opening and took full advantage. James will don red at the Allianz Arena as he seeks vindication.

Yet, the Colombian should enter his new situation with eyes open. While cultivating a more courteous than condescending image, Bayern greatly resemble Real Madrid.

Rodriguez will have to prove his worth to partner Thiago Alcantara with Joshua Kimmich settling into a deeper role. Or he may have to settle for deputising on the wings with Franck Ribery (34) and Arjen Robben (33) both looking at CSL and MLS retirement brochures. If a player fails to hold his promise or simply doesn't fit their plans moving forward, Bayern will cut ties in a politely ruthless manner. James need only ask Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luca Toni, or Mario Gomez. The Bavarians may be the best possible destination for James Rodriguez or the beleaguered Colombian international may have leapt with both feet from the frying pan into the fire.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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