LIVERPOOL, England — Carlo Ancelotti greets James Rodríguez, as he strolls off the field, with an embrace. He whispers a few kind words into his ear, congratulating his player on a fine afternoon’s work. Rodríguez smiles, thanking him, and then continues toward the bench.
As Rodríguez reaches down to select a water bottle, Ancelotti turns away from the game and gently places a hand on the player’s back. It is an almost paternal gesture, full of satisfaction and pride and affection. He leaves it there for a second or two: just long enough for Rodríguez to know that he is appreciated.
In the game’s afterglow — Everton has beaten West Bromwich Albion, 5-2, and will sit top of the nascent Premier League table for a few hours — Ancelotti is in a relaxed, contented mood, given to the warm nostalgia of the elder statesman, his mind fusing this happy afternoon to all of the heady days he has known.
As he conducts his news media conference on Zoom, though, the focus is not on the rich promise of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has scored a clinical, instinctive hat trick. The first few questions are Rodríguez, Rodríguez, Rodríguez. Ancelotti indulges them all with the air of a man expecting it.
The last few weeks at Everton have all been about Rodríguez. His face adorns the program before his home debut. Outside Goodison Park, all three of the club’s summer signings — Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Rodríguez — have been emblazoned on a billboard. But it is the Colombian, Rodriguez, who is front and center.
On the day he signed, Everton arranged for the Colpatria Tower, Colombia’s tallest building, to be bathed in blue light. There were displays in New York’s Times Square and in Miami Beach, too. Richard Kenyon, the club’s director of marketing, said Rodríguez’s profile — he has, by the club’s estimate, the eighth largest social media following of any athlete on the planet — would help Everton fulfill its “global ambitions more quickly.”
No player, the cliché runs, is ever bigger than a club. That is true, of course, but there are times when it feels more tenuous, when it is almost possible to believe it is not. The arrival of Rodríguez, Colombia’s golden boy, a bona fide Galactico, the star of the 2014 World Cup, at Everton — a team tired of treading water, desperate for something more than nostalgia — is one of those moments.
The Tyranny of the Future
At the turn of the year, rumors started to swirl in Spain that Barcelona — in dire need of attacking reinforcements as its season listed and turned — had approached Everton to see if the team would consider parting with its Brazilian forward Richarlison.
He had cost $40 million when he arrived from Watford 18 months earlier, and his return had been steady: 13 Premier League goals in an encouraging debut season, with eight more halfway through his second. That was enough, several outlets reported at the time, to persuade Barcelona to offer to buy him for $108 million: an eyebrow-raising price, and a mouthwatering profit.
Everton, the story went, had said no: the club had no intention of parting with a prized asset. A few weeks later, Richarlison himself would insist it was all smoke and vapor. Inundated with messages from friends in Brazil, he said, he had checked with his agent. There had been no offer, no confirmed interest.
As ever in the transfer market, though, what was true mattered less than what stuck. To Everton fans, the club had taken a stand that it would not be bullied by the game’s superpowers, that — at last — it had the financial firepower and the concrete sense of purpose not to be used as a steppingstone.
In a different light, though, Everton’s decision appeared far riskier. Most clubs of Everton’s profile — not part of the established, 21st century elite, but determined to rectify that — now actively advertise themselves as springboards. Young, gifted players arrive, excel, and are then sold on to one of the handful of destination teams in Europe: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris St.-Germain, Bayern Munich, Juventus and sundry members of England’s Big Six.
When executed well, everyone benefits from this arrangement. The player has the stage on which to advertise his talents, a chance to build a data set. The club has access to a higher caliber of player — albeit in his formative years — than might otherwise be possible and, when a sale eventually goes through, can reinvest that money in its squad.
It is the strategy that has allowed the likes of Monaco, Ajax, RB Leipzig and Lyon to reach the Champions League semifinals in recent years. It is the strategy that turned Tottenham into Premier League contenders for a couple of seasons and Atlético Madrid into a European force. To some extent — though the citation would not be welcomed at Everton — it is the approach that transformed Liverpool into English and European champions. It is, now, almost an orthodoxy that this is how all but a handful of clubs should operate.
Signing Rodríguez at 29 runs contrary to that practice. Though Rodríguez’s case is a curious one, tangled up in the occasionally opaque world of Real Madrid’s inner logic, it is counterintuitive to try to catch up to the elite by signing players deemed not good enough to play for them.
More pertinently, when his contract expires in 2023, at the latest, his age means there will be little or no resale value, nothing to reinvest. When he leaves, Everton will be exactly where it was when he joined.
At a time when teams are told to think about the future, it is a signing for today, one that strikes at the heart of what has long held Everton, and others, back: a pride that prevents a club from recognizing its place not in the historical order but in the current one, a refusal to think of itself as anything other than a destination, and an inability to see that the only way, ultimately, to rejoin that elite is to act first as a proving ground for it.
This Is Supposed to Be Fun
Outside Goodison Park, a small group of fans has gathered an hour or so after the West Brom game. Most of them wear Everton’s royal blue, but at least one is in the bright canary yellow of Colombia. They are here to congratulate the players on a second consecutive win, on a promising start to this season, but there is one they want to see above all others.
After a while, he appears. As Rodríguez is driven past the Winslow pub, on Goodison Road, a couple of fans urge him to stop and lower his window. Smiling, he does so. For his trouble, he is handed a bottle of wine. He accepts it with a grin. The fans cheer in delight.
Even before he had trained, much less played, with his new teammates, the mere act of signing Rodríguez was enough to create a sense of optimism, of interest, of energy around Everton. Just the thought of a player of his reputation wearing blue was a consequential, almost tangible thing.
Two games in, that effect has been magnified. To his coach, Ancelotti, his gifts lie in his simplicity. “His football is not so complicated,” he said. “If he has space, he uses his qualities to play passes. If he is under pressure, he plays simple. This is what every player has to do.” To his captain, Seamus Coleman, it is the “calm” that comes from such a celebrated, high-pressure career.
But to an outside eye, it is the artistry with which he does it all: the flourish of his left boot as he plays a pass; the fade on a ball to make it fall just so for a teammate; the ingenuity with which he lofts a pass to Richarlison to create Calvert-Lewin’s second goal.
That he drifts in and out of games, in a way, only adds to his aura. Rodríguez plays like a star in an almost old-fashioned sense, not expected to dictate a game from start to finish but to influence it in moments. He makes fans believe that anything can happen at any second, that nothing is ever lost, that there is always reason for anticipation, for hope.
On the stratified plains of European soccer, that is no small thing. Though Ajax, Monaco and the rest prove that it is possible to succeed from a position of weakness, it is a Sisyphean task: no sooner has the boulder been rolled up the slope than the process must begin again. Tomorrow, for most, never really comes.
Everton, instead, has chosen to make today as enjoyable as possible, to give its fans reason to find every game compelling. It is not an acquiescence to its status — an admission that it can never catch the modern giants — but it is a recognition of it. Everton cannot join the entrenched elite overnight; it may as well enjoy the wait.
Ultimately, professional sports are not just about long-term aims and models of success and age profiles and philosophies. They are not entirely about economics, either. Strip away the tribalism and the emotion and they are, at their heart, a form of entertainment. They are supposed to be fun. That is what Rodríguez has done: allowed Everton to have fun again.