James Rodríguez and Everton was always a beautiful doomed marriage | Jonathan Liew
James Rodríguez has gone to Qatar in search of work, although unlike many others who have made the trip before him he can at least keep his passport and will be allowed to leave whenever he wants. The bewitching Colombian playmaker has signed a contract with Al-Rayyan, bringing down the curtain on his Everton career, and – you suspect – much else besides.
The first thing to be said is that this is probably for the best all round. Ever since the sudden departure of Carlo Ancelotti to Real Madrid Rodríguez had felt like an expensive spare part in a team increasingly based on hard running and well-organised defence. The new manager, Rafael Benítez, had no use for him. Rodríguez is not only 30 and at about £220,000 a week the highest-paid player in the club’s history, but highly injury-prone and last season ran the least of all Everton’s attacking players. There is a sense of inevitability here.
Much of the initial fervour and excitement that greeted Rodríguez’s arrival from Real Madrid a year ago had long since dissipated, on both sides. “On the weekend I will not play, I don’t even know who Everton is playing, can you please tell me?” Rodríguez asked fans during a live Twitch stream last month. “Oh, Leeds? A difficult game. Let’s see what happens. Hopefully they win.”
Perhaps everyone should have seen this coming. Perhaps everyone did see this coming. And if there is an element of sadness here it is because the story of Rodríguez at Everton will probably go down as an entirely avoidable folly: a reckless low-percentage decision that anyone could see would likely end in injuries and apathy and a financial problem that could hamper the club for years.
But these were the very same elements that made Rodríguez such a bold, fascinating, romantic signing. Part of the basic appeal of this transfer – and why it deserves to be remembered far more fondly than it probably will – was that it made no sense whatsoever. And never was this truer than during those few tantalising occasions on which when Rodríguez and Everton made music together.
It was a brief flirtation, as these things go: a stunning introduction against Tottenham on the opening game of the season, a two-goal burst against Brighton in October, a screamer against Manchester United, a brilliant assist for Richarlison in the 2-0 win at Anfield in February. Most of all there was that silhouette: the gentle lean back, the smooth arc of that left foot, arms delicately outstretched for balance. In both aesthetic and numerical terms – six goals and nine assists in all competitions – his one season at Goodison was at least a partial success.
And yet even in those gossamer autumn days, when Rodríguez was picking apart Premier League defences for fun, it still felt fragile and fleeting and probably unwise. In a sense Rodríguez was the ultimate emblem of the wild, untamed ambition of the Ancelotti years, when Everton briefly dreamed themselves into the big time again. Their twin departures, by contrast, offer a stiff jolt of reality, a cold and boring reminder that status is accrued not through star signings but through a gradual process of sound recruitment, clear values, a results-oriented culture, yada yada, and so on.
For the star of the 2014 World Cup it probably marks the end of his top-class career. Few players manage to enhance their playing reputations in Qatar – among the league’s stars these days are Santi Cazorla, Toby Alderweireld and Javi Martínez, all in various forms of decline – and despite his relative youth it is hard to see Rodríguez bucking that trend. For all he has achieved, there remains a sense of frustration that a player of such rich talent has been unable to harness it fully, that what could have been a glittering career is essentially reducible to a handful of moments.
Meanwhile Everton, in the dual grip of Benítez and financial fair play considerations, are a more sensible club these days. They sign sensible, can-do players such as Andros Townsend and Salomón Rondón. They have sensibly kicked their addiction to flighty No 10s who don’t press. They sensibly got knocked out of the Carabao Cup by QPR on Tuesday night. And now they have sensibly offloaded a player who was costing them £1m a month and didn’t know who they were playing at the weekend.
In a way, the Rodríguez saga encapsulates perfectly the two universes of football. In one, you reconcile yourself to your financial realities, trust the data, pick a recruitment strategy and stick to it. In the other, if you get the chance to sign James Rodríguez, you sign James Rodríguez. It was a pipe dream, a childish punt, a beautiful doomed marriage. It was rash and foolish and daring and everyone knew how it was going to end. But you wanted to watch anyway.