As lockdown continues and most of our football remains on hiatus, editors around the world log in to Zoom meetings in an effort to mine the minds of their writers for fresh angles to write about.
There are nostalgia-filled articles by the dozen, and thousands of words try to predict what will happen in three months when most of us don’t know what will happen next week. The only thing that is certain now are existential crises every couple weeks, sprinkled with debate over statistics and how countries should be run.
The alternative history genre has emerged as another sub-category. It’s fun, it’s quirky and it lets us relive the past with different outcomes.
James’ failed move to Atlético Madrid
James Rodríguez reportedly regrets not being given the chance to sign for Atlético last summer and will try to engineer a move across the city again at the end of this season.
The initial feeling was excitement when Atlético beat Real Madrid 7-3 in New Jersey last summer. They had scored seven goals, after all, and Diego Costa was back to being a bully. João Félix looked more like a magician than a midfielder, and Atlético’s counterattack looked sharpened enough to fillet even the most stubborn substances put before it.
In the end, all that happened was expectations were raised to unrealistic levels. Every game that came after that when Atlético didn’t come close to scoring double digits was seen as as an underachievement. It also put the skids on a potential James transfer. The heads of both clubs had met before the game, and the Colombia star was on the table.
After the 7-3, he was taken swiftly off it.
How could Real Madrid possibly strengthen a rival after losing 7-3 to them? With James, it could be 14-3 next time. Or even if his input wasn’t as obvious, how would it look if he scored even five goals for Atlético on the way to a league-title winning season? Or if he contributed to Atlético finally winning the holy grail, the Champions League, Real Madrid’s very own cup, or so they believe (with reason)?
James was left to wait. There were the platitudes about him being a new signing for Zinedine Zidane, but some insubordination and a few avoidable injuries later and he was banished again. Not to Bayern Munich, but to the bench. Or further up the stands. Zidane doesn’t need him and doesn’t want him.
James is keen to live out that “what-could-have-been.” But what exactly might this season have looked like with James under Diego Simeone’s order?
For a start, all the pressure that Félix felt would have been lessened by a factor of 10. The Portuguese signed in the summer not just as a €126 million wonder-kid but as a direct replacement for Antoine Griezmann. When times got tough, as they have during his first season at the club, Félix and Simeone had nobody to lean on to alleviate the pressure.
James could have been that man. The 28-year-old is a superstar and has a big enough profile to take up most of the spotlight, which would have had knock-on effects around the squad.
James could have also shown Félix the ropes as a creative number 10 in LaLiga. The move would have given Simeone options too, making Atlético more unpredictable as opposed to what they’ve been most of the season. Félix usually is Atlético’s only creative outlet, and when he was injured they drew three and lost one. Atlético’s attack stagnated badly without him and without Koke, who also missed time.
Real Madrid have to offload some of their higher earners. James is certainly one of them, as he makes over €17 million gross per year. His wages are in the same ballpark as Karim Benzema, Marcelo and Thibaut Courtois — three of Zidane’s heavier contributors. Selling to Atlético might not be ideal, but if Real Madrid can get anything back on their initial €75 million investment, they might be forced to take it given the effects of the coronavirus.
“If Real Madrid want to recover some of their money, they need to close the deal,” said Colombian journalist Javier Hernández Bonnet, on Blu Radio. “If they don’t do it between now and December, James will be a free agent.
“Real Madrid should open the door for James. The same sources that told us when he moved to Bayern Munich, have said the operation [to transfer to Atlético] is 80 percent done.”
Of course, there is also the possibility James’ possible protracted arrival goes wrong. Jackson Martinez, Gelson Martins and Alessio Cerci always pop into your head when discussing any Atlético attacking signing. However, James has LaLiga experience and would not be uprooting his entire life to move to a nice city and country.
Would he work hard enough under Simeone to earn sufficient playing time? Would Simeone play Félix and James together at any point? That all remains to be seen, but James would certainly be motivated to prove his former club and coach wrong across the city. It’s still conjecture, but Real Madrid need to sell, and Atlético need attacking help (as ever). Thus, they could convince their cross-city rivals to sell for a fraction of the player’s cost.
Football can be stranger than fiction, but we have to abide by the laws of physics and cannot go back in time. However, the future is ours to manipulate, and James wants a better one for himself. According to reports, he sees that future in red and white.