James Rodríguez is the latest gem unearthed by FC Porto that has turned into a sparkling diamond, and has been winning plaudits from fans and critics alike, including Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson.
While the legendary Scottish manager is more than aware of the dangers of negotiating with the Portuguese club (a fact that can be traced back to the sale of Anderson in 2007 for no less than £20 million), recently the Mancunian scouts were seen at an FC Porto match for the seventh time this season – a clear sign of how highly Sir Alex Ferguson values him.
FC Porto were once a club that promoted the rise of youngsters through their own ranks. From Jorge Costa to Vítor Baía, Bruno Alves to Fernando Couto, the club were renowned for supporting and giving opportunities to their youths, and quickly became one of the main suppliers of the Portuguese national team.
While regional pride (and the will to rise against the capital clubs) was a key reason for it, the tight purse strings were obviously a factor. However, back in 1997, FC Porto became a Public Limited Sports Company. Suddenly, a club used to adhering to a strict budget found itself awash with fresh money - and with that money came a flood of dubious foreign signings. The period was so bad that the club didn't win the Portuguese league for three seasons straight (between 1999 and 2002), the first time since that had happened since 1982.
FC Porto had to wait for José Mourinho – then taking the first steps of his successful career as head coach – to arrive to see off many of those questionable signings and put the club back on track. The likes of Nuno Valente, Deco, Costinha, Maniche, Ricardo Carvalho or Paulo Ferreira were all either bought or boosted by the Special One.
Since then, the Portuguese outfit won the UEFA Cup and the Champions League as well as 23 titles, and sold all the players mentioned above plus Anderson, Benni McCarthy, Hélder Postiga, Raúl Meireles, Paulo Assunção, Bruno Alves, Falcao, Lisandro López, Derlei, Lucho González, Cissokho, Guarín and most recently Hulk.
The club rebuilt its scouting department from top to bottom and abandoned the strategy of bringing home-grown players through the ranks. Instead, equipped with a vast network of scouts and partners, management made South America its primary target. First targeting Brazil, then Argentina, Uruguay, and lately Colombia, the club have insisted on bringing little known players into Europe and transforming them into well-established team figures.
Thanks to their privileged positioning in the market, FC Porto were able to lure the likes of Falcao, Guarín, Lucho González, Lisandro López, Iturbe and James Rodríguez away from their respective clubs before other European and South American powerhouses.
Even though they're no longer as willing to give equal opportunities to the youths from their own academy, FC Porto keeps their teaching vein very much alive. Instead of throwing the newcomers onto the starting line-up, the young guns are taught the ropes with time and patience, immersed in the club's philosophy and instilled with values such as work rate and respect for team-mates and coaches.
James Rodríguez was just another one of those cases. Despite being signed as one of the world's most promising youngsters in July 2010, he was not rushed into anything. His then coach André Villas-Boas played him sparsely at first, mainly off the bench when matches were all but done. As FC Porto pressed on for a winning season, James Rodríguez's presence became more and more important: in that season's Portuguese Cup final - the last match of a long campaign - he went on to score a hat-trick, singlehandedly winning the game for Porto.
The next season was a bit more troubled. The coach was left in the midst of confusion a week before the start of pre-season and the team lost one of their heroes, Falcao, near the end of the transfer deadline. With Hulk as the club's mainstay, James remained forced to play out on the left wing, while the Brazilian forward wreaked havoc from the right. Despite grabbing the Portuguese title, FC Porto did not enjoy a particularly fruitful season, with early exits from both the Champions League and the Portuguese Cup. Nevertheless, Rodriguez had a prolific end to the season, leading his team to victory in the Toulon tournament and his country to one of their best ever performances in the U20 World Cup.
Restricted in the team's typical 4-3-3 formation, a debate about James's preferential position soon took shape. It was clear that tying the Colombian to the touchline did not allow him to fulfill his huge promise. However, his situation started to become brighter when Hulk was sold to Zenit St. Petersburg. Without the muscular forward (and a very decent striker in Jackson Martínez), the team was patiently built around James and he has finally been able to unleash his true potential.
While he is nominally deployed on the right, he usually drifts inside and acts as a number 10. His touch and ability to pick out a pass are extraordinary, and he has the skillset to both provide teammates with killer balls and threaten the goal himself with a direct dribbling style. Even though he is no workhorse, his time on the squad's fringes allowed him to develop a better understanding of the game and of his duties on both attacking and defensive fronts.
The question remains: will James be good enough to play in the Premier League? In my opinion, the answer is yes, most definitely. Not only is he becoming increasingly consistent, he is now versatile enough to play as a winger on either flank or behind the striker. Given that the Premier League has seen a resurgence of 4-4-2 disguised as a 4-2-3-1, James would be perfect playing between the adversary's lines and offering a great deal of unpredictability to his team: in Manchester United's case, it would be great to see the attacking fluidity created by Rooney, Van Persie and Rodriguez combined.