Anatomy of a Classic Goal: James Rodriguez and the perfect volley
Julian Finney / Getty Images Sport / Getty

As we await the full return of world football, we're taking this opportunity to look back on some of the most memorable goals ever scored. Going frame by frame, we'll dissect how, exactly, these epic moments came to fruition.

Other classic goals: Ronaldo | Van Persie | Bergkamp | Aguero | Messi

Who, where, and when?

  • Goalscorer: James Rodriguez (Colombia)
  • Match: Colombia vs. Uruguay
  • Competition: 2014 World Cup (round of 16)
  • Date: June 28, 2014

It feels like an eternity ago now, but in the summer of 2014, burgeoning superstar James Rodriguez was the hottest commodity in world football. Young and handsome, supremely talented, and spearheading a fun, charming Colombia team, the then-22-year-old attacking midfielder was the belle of the ball at the World Cup in Brazil.

He captured the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer - despite playing fewer than 400 minutes as his country bowed out to the host nation in the quarterfinals - ultimately finding the net six times in just five games.

Of his sextet of goals, none left a mark on the competition quite like his gorgeous volley against Uruguay in the last-16. It was so spectacular that it's easy to forget Rodriguez also scored the other goal in Colombia's 2-0 win at the iconic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro. Nobody remembers that second one, though. His opener, a perfect volley from 25 yards out that was eventually named the best goal of the tournament, was that damn special.

Here's the breathtaking tally in all its glory:

Let's examine how Rodriguez was able to deliver a goal that was eventually bestowed with the 2014 Puskas Award.

Setting the scene

As you can see in the opening seconds of the video above, the sequence begins with Juan Cuadrado and Abel Aguilar briefly playing hot potato with the ball while Rodriguez scurries back and forth, desperately trying to make himself available to receive the ball from either of his two compatriots.

The passing lane appears to open and close multiple times before Aguilar finally makes the decision to try and clip the ball into his teammate. When he does, Uruguay's Cristian Rodriguez - naturally a winger but deployed in this match as part of manager Oscar Tabarez's three-man midfield - has just about recovered to get alongside his Colombian namesake.

Uruguay were nominally lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Rodriguez in his more natural wide position, but when they lost the ball, the system morphed into a 5-3-2, and the winger tucked inside to offer additional support in the central area. That's great, except when he's tasked with keeping tabs on the tournament's most in-form player.

Rodriguez - the Uruguayan one - looks over his shoulder a couple times but is ultimately too focused on the ball and loses track of his Colombian counterpart, who drifts behind him into a pocket of space that's developed between the Uruguayan midfielders and defenders.

FIFA / theScore Illustration

Note how the three midfielders - Alvaro Gonzalez (1), Arevalo Rios (2), and Rodriguez (3) - are practically in a straight line; that makes it exceedingly simple for Aguilar to eliminate all three of them from the play with one pass, and for our eventual goalscorer to evade their clutches with some relatively pedestrian movement.

Finding the space

When Aguilar does indeed decide to go for the pass, Rodriguez has planted himself in a dangerous position where, were he to receive the ball right away, he'd have plenty of time to either take a touch and shoot or look to tee up one of the two Colombian strikers.

In fairness to the Uruguayan midfield contingent - we have to at least give them some credit - they do force Aguilar to go for a difficult aerial ball, cutting off the passing lanes on the ground.

FIFA / theScore Illustration

It's also important to note that Cristian Rodriguez, who's listed as standing roughly 5-foot-8, comes within inches of getting his head onto Aguilar's pass. If he even gets the slightest deflection and sends the ball careening into another direction, we're almost certainly not sitting here looking back on one of the most aesthetically pleasing goals in World Cup history.

FIFA / theScore Illustration

He isn't able to change the trajectory of the pass - it just evades his head. Aguilar's ball floats beyond his intended target, though - it sails past James Rodriguez - and is cleared away by the diving figure of left-back Alvaro Pereira. The Uruguayan defender, a stalwart of Tabarez's World Cup sides, nips in front of Colombian striker Jackson Martinez to clear the danger.

Momentarily, at least.

FIFA / theScore Illustration

That Pereira ends up on the ground in order to make the clearance becomes vital in about two seconds ...

The slightest hesitation

Pereira's header drops directly onto the cranium of Aguilar - the ball seemed to follow him around throughout this entire sequence - and instead of trying to bring it down and control it, he quickly prods it forward, looking again to find Rodriguez, who is still in that pocket of space outlined earlier.

For a variety of reasons, none of the Uruguayan contingent on the scene - outside of Diego Godin, who we'll get to shortly - is well-placed to react when Aguilar pokes the ball to his teammate.

  • Rios has charged forward to close down Aguilar.
  • Rodriguez, not someone with the greatest defensive instincts, remember, has been in no-man's land for a while now.
  • Pereira is still down on one knee after his earlier clearance.

That really leaves just Godin, the captain and ever-present defensive rock that Uruguay was long built around, to respond when Rodriguez finally does take the ball down on his chest.

FIFA / theScore Illustration

It's quite literally a split-second decision, but Godin hesitates ever so briefly while charging out to confront the Colombian No. 10. It's so subtle that it's difficult to pick it up in the clip, but he rushes out, comes to a split-second stop, and then takes another step forward before Rodriguez turns his hips and uncorks a sublime volley.

Barbosa Futbol Videos / YouTube

Would Godin have gotten close enough to block the shot had he rushed out, full steam ahead, and not paused momentarily?

Conventional wisdom says he did everything right. Defenders have long been instructed to close down an attacker's time and space quickly; you want to get close enough to potentially put in a tackle or react to a move, but not too close to the point where the attacker can remove you from the equation with a quick juke or feint. Essentially, you can't go charging in at full speed unless you want to get left in a heap.

But with Rodriguez having to take the ball on his chest and briefly wait for it to drop to his foot before making his next move, he was in an awkward enough spot that Godin might've been able to put those standard defensive principles aside and get just that little bit tighter.

Thankfully for neutral viewers everywhere, he didn't.

On your own island

Now, back to that pocket of space. It's truly incredible that, with five opposing players essentially creating a bubble around him, Rodriguez was given time to cushion Aguilar's header, swivel, and unleash his ferocious shot.

FIFA / YouTube

The overhead angle provides the perfect illustration:

FIFA / theScore Illustration

From there, Fernando Muslera in the Uruguayan goal never had a chance. That the ball crashed off the underside of the crossbar before springing back up off the turf and into the roof of the net only makes it that much sweeter.

In every possible way, it's the picturesque volley.

"Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez - they do things because they have certain gifts that make them special," Tabarez said after the match. "I believe he's the best player at the World Cup."

Sadly, Rodriguez's career has yet to reach similar heights. His spectacular World Cup showing earned him a mega-money move to Real Madrid just over a week after the tournament ended, but injuries, positional struggles, and a lack of playing time - which resulted in a two-year loan spell at Bayern Munich from 2017-19 - have scuppered his spell in the Spanish capital.

While it seems increasingly unlikely the 28-year-old will ever develop into the unstoppable force many tipped him to be, that shouldn't take anything away from the truly magical moment he delivered that day in Rio.

Anatomy of a Classic Goal: James Rodriguez and the perfect volley
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