A youth prodigy given his big break by a suspected associate of Pablo Escobar, Rodríguez has taken Carlos Valderrama’s No10 shirt and may steal his crown as Colombia’s greatest ever player

James Rodríguez’s maturity has long been one of his hallmarks. Having been born in Cúcuta, a city near Colombia’s Venezuelan border, his family uprooted to Ibagué when he was only little. His father, himself an ex-footballer, was largely absent in Rodríguez’s early years and so it was left to his godfather, Juan Carlos Restrepo, to look after his footballing development.

At the age of two Rodríguez would go to watch the now defunct second division side Cooperamos Tolima train. While the players were warming up Rodríguez was seen racing down on to the pitch and mimicking the squad’s exercise drills. As a skinny five-year-old, he enrolled at the Academia Tolimense football school.

But it was at the Pony Futbol championship in 2004 that Rodríguez’s life changed for ever. Every year the infant tournament grabs huge attention in Colombia with games being televised and scouts swarming to the event. It is seen as one of Colombian football’s best breeding grounds, with 11 of the 30 players initially called up by the coach, José Pékerman, having played at the competition.

Radamel Falcao appeared at the 1998 version, but six years later it was Rodríguez and the goal the forward scored directly from a corner that left the greatest impression. He finished as top goalscorer and best player, and in the crowds a highly powerful and controversial ex-associate of the infamous drug baron Pablo Escobar was taking note.

If Rodríguez now partly owes his place among the world’s elite to Pékerman’s support and masterful schooling, back then it was a businessman with suspected ties to Medellín’s drug cartels and vigilante death squads who gave the teenager his big chance.

Gustavo Adolfo Upegui Lopez was president and chief shareholder at Envigado football club where Rodríguez would go on to make his professional debut. To this day the Academia Tolimense claim they were “cheated” out of a fair price when Envigado swooped for Rodríguez.

But Upegui was not a man to be messed with. He had been jailed for 21 months in 1998 for suspected links to cases involving kidnapping as well as organising rightwing paramilitary groups, although he was eventually cleared of the charges. Envigado’s first president, Jorge Arturo Bustamante, had been shot dead in 1993 and a long string of unsolved murders plagued both the club and Upegui until the director himself was murdered in 2006.

But Envigado’s youth setup was second to none and Rodríguez understood the huge opportunity presented to him by Upegui. After uprooting his family to settle in Medellín, the youngster turned to the renowned coach Omar Suárez for private coaching. “That says it all about him,” Suárez commented. “Which other kid his age would consider paying for extra coaching because they want to be the best?”

Rodríguez would go on to play just one top-flight game for the Medellín side but the club would provide the springboard for him to sign for Argentinian minnows Banfield in 2008.

It was here where his career really took off. At 17 Rodríguez made his debut as the youngest foreigner to play in the Argentinian first division before leading the club to their first league championship. Banfield’s manager, Julio Falcioni, heaped on the praise. “He is going to achieve something special with the Colombia national team.”

Rodríguez had already started planting those seeds as a key part of Los Cafeteros’ return to international football’s top table when he captained the under-20 side at the 2011 Toulon tournament. He was named best player and later that year led his country to the quarter-finals of the Youth World Cup.

Three years later and he is the form player in arguably the form team of the World Cup. Last summer’s £38.5m switch from Porto to Monaco underlined the playmaker’s potential as one of the world’s most exciting young players. But it has been at this summer’s World Cup where the midfielder has glided from precocious talent to global star. Back in Colombia few are surprised.

Consecutive man-of-the-match performances against Greece and Ivory Coast helped Colombia brush aside the lassitude that swamped the country’s World Cup preparations after injury to their talismanic striker Falcao.

Balanced, intelligent and technically gifted, Rodríguez has been the drive and vision behind Colombia. And it’s not just as a creative force where Rodríguez has been one of the tournament’s standout players. With three goals he is already Colombia’s all-time top goalscorer at a World Cup finals.

Credit must also go to the sagacious Pékerman whose faith in the young star has allowed Rodríguez to truly blossom. One of the first decisions the Argentinian coach made upon taking the Colombia job in 2012 was to hand Rodríguez the No10 shirt; Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama’s No10 shirt. It was a huge gamble for a player still only 20.

The ex-Argentina manager’s greatest move perhaps was dragging Rodríguez off the left wing where he had played throughout qualifying to operate inside as a roaming playmaker. Pékerman’s hand might have been forced due to Falcao’s injury, but it was still a bold move.

The 64-year-old coach admitted after beating Ivory Coast that he’d been worried. “It is not easy substituting somebody like Falcao. There’s always a doubt when you make such a change, but my players have all assumed responsibility,” Pékerman said.

Rodríguez has taken it all in his stride. “My responsibility grows,” the midfielder said after Colombia’s 3-0 win over Greece. “But I don’t let the pressure get to me.”

It seems incredible to think now but when Pékerman’s predecessor, Leonel Álvarez, handed Rodríguez his first senior start three years ago in Colombia’s first qualifier, a few eyebrows were raised.

Now the narrative has completely turned on its head. Indeed, if Colombia make history and reach the World Cup’s last eight for the first time, some believe Rodríguez could even assume Valderrama’s mantle as the country’s greatest player of all time.