Friday, September 24, 2021

James to Al-Rayyan - a Sign of the Times

James to Al-Rayyan
James to Al-Rayyan

THE COLOMBIAN'S SHOCK MOVE FROM MERSEYSIDE IS A COUP FOR QATAR

James Rodriguez
's swift move from Everton to Al-Rayyan has raised a few eyebrows with many claiming it is a bad move for the World Cup 2014 Golden Boot Winner.

Aged 30, the Colombian should normally be at the peak of his powers, starring for a big club in the UEFA Champions League and challenging for titles.

Instead, Rodriguez found himself frozen out at Everton under new manager Rafael Benitez so was offloaded unceremoniously to the Qatar Stars League, where he will be the only South American or European in his team's squad, coached by French World Cup winner Laurent Blanc.

The Lions' 36-man roster is all Qatari except for Iranian Shojae Khalilzadeh, Cameroonian Franck Kom and the Ivory Coast's Yohan Boli. 

At Everton by contrast he played with 12 different nationalities including five current or former England internationals, two Brazilian internationals, one French and one fellow Colombian, Yerry Mina.

Compared to Rodriguez's previous homes the Premier League, La Liga, Ligue Un or the Bundesliga, the QSL is not exactly overflowing with star names, but James will at least recognise former Bayern teammate Javi Martinez at Qatar SC, Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld at Al-Duhail and Barcelona legend Xavi in charge of Al-Sadd. There is one other Colombian in Qatar, Jeison Medina of Al-Shamal.

"It's not easy to find good offers when you want," Rafael Benitez explained at today's Everton press conference, "and that was the time. That was the right one for him and he is happy with that and we have to do it because we have to maximise our resources."

James was Everton's highest-played player at around £200,000 a week and with six goals and 26 appearances last season, could have been seen as somewhat of a luxury. Benitez also lamented James' regular injuries, saying, "when you have a player...available for 50% of the games in the Premier League, it is not something we can manage easily." He also cited the UEFA rules on spending as a factor in the Colombian's exit.

Financial Fair Play Rules were probably a factor in his departure, as was the Covid hit all clubs took last season without paying spectators. It cannot be a coincidence that the continent's two brightest stars, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, were both sold in the most recent transfer window. But one wonders if it was not merely a case of a coach not rating a player's abilities or attitude.

Benitez did not want him and James wanted to play, so that was that. With the European transfer window shut, the only options for selling James, therefore, were in the USA and Asia, but the clubs with the dollars to afford him were in China and the Middle East. 

There had been interest in Europe from Milan, Porto and Istanbul Basaksehir but no agreement could be reached before the window shut, presumably because James or his super-agent, the famous Jorge Mendes, held out for a big salary. James did admit playing in Italy sounded attractive but never showed interest in a move to Turkey, while Porto could not agree on a swap involving compatriot Luis Diaz.

In the end they settled for £6 million per annum with Al-Rayyan, 57% of what he was getting on Merseyside. The transfer interestingly includes a clause that he can break his contract at a loss if a team in the UEFA Champions League comes calling and given Qatar's connections with Paris Saint-Germain, there remains a possibility of a return to France, where James previously played with Monaco.

Although he has just headed in the opposite direction, a player of James's calibre surely still belongs in Europe, or at least at a top South American club.

For Al-Rayyan and the Qatari league, signing James is therefore a big coup, which reflects well on the country's football in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, which will make use of the club's 47,000 capacity stadium.

Qatar World Cup stadium

That competition and the need for first-team football must also have been in his mind as the offer arrived. 

In May, James issued an extraordinary press release expressing his "great disappointment" and "huge pain" at being dropped for Colombia's September World Cup qualifiers. He remains the team's talisman as far as the fans are concerned and his absence grates on a nation who all gather round to watch 'La Seleccion.'

While he and the federation disputed his fitness levels this summer, the real reason for his exclusion must have been his persistent calf muscle problems at Everton last season which restricted his appearances, as well as his complete rejection by incoming manager Benitez. 

Given James arrived on a free transfer from Real Madrid and the Toffees made £7 million on his sale, it could be argued he was not a big financial drain on the club. Had Carlo Ancelotti still been on Merseyside, the Colombian would surely have remained a first-team regular having signed him and coached him at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

Benitez of course had coached James at Real too, albeit briefly and has also changed the Everton style by eschewing his playmakers in favour of the newly-acquired Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, tramline wingers tasked with firing in fast crosses to strikers Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

Four opening wins seemed to justify his changes, although the past two defeats have led many to question why James was not at least on the bench. His assists and passing last season for Everton proved he had lost none of his famous technique.

James himself recently lamented the decline of No.10s, the creative hubs between defence and attack. He is 'un atipico', a player who is hard to define, loosely described as an attacking midfielder. He plays high up and drifts in the hole, threading clever balls beyond back fours with a palpable footballing brain. 

In addition he scores goals and his six at Brazil 2014, including that wonder strike against Uruguay,which won the FIFA Puskas Award, remain the high point of his career. Afterwards, Diego Maradona said he should have won player of the tournament ahead of Messi.

As for Everton, their sudden rise in popularity in South America has come to an abrupt halt. 

James' signing saw Colombia's tallest building, the Colpatria tower, bathed in blue. Supporters' clubs were set up in Latin America, the club played Bogota club Millionarios in a Florida friendly and the club website was given a Spanish translation. 

The sudden departure of the country's star player has left the Latino Toffees followers dismayed and season-ticket holders are also sad they never had the chance to see the Colombian play in person.

"A pity not to have played in Goodison Park with you. It would have been very nice," Rodriguez wrote laconically on Instagram.

Last year James admitted how much it hurt not playing in the Champions League, so one wonders how he will adapt to what is in footballing terms, a bit of a backwater. He has penned a three-year contract with Al-Rayyan but one has to wonder if he will fulfil it. The Middle East, as they say, is not for everyone.

He will have to adapt quickly to a new culture but Qatar will be the eighth country in which he has plied his trade, so he is unlikely to suffer from homesickness.

Al-Rayyan, the western suburb of Doha, is a world away from Merseyside. 

It contains the Doha Zoo, National Stadium and the Villaggio Mall, a typically bling block of high-end Western stores, where, given his Instagram posts of relaxing on private jets and yachts, James should feel right at home.

Even the intense sun of Doha should not be too much for a man who grew up in the all-round heat of Cucuta, in northern Colombia.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

soccerallover.com

No comments: