By Michael Place
RIO DE JANEIRO, June 30 (Xinhua) -- James Rodriguez was just six years old when word of his prodigious left foot began to spread around Arkaparaiso, a working class suburb in the Colombian city of Ibague.
His aunt, Patricia Rubia, tells the story about the day when James kicked the ball over a fence and through a grumpy neighbor's window.
The man stormed out of his home and punctured the ball with a kitchen knife before tossing it back at the youngster's feet.
James was inconsolable.
He had been cruelly deprived of his favorite toy and, although oblivious to it then, a tool that would allow him to hone the skills that have catapulted him into football's elite tier.
More than 16 years on, James David Rodriguez Rubio is arguably the most talked about footballer on the planet.
His performances at the World Cup have prompted Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez to compare him with Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona.
The 22-year-old has scored a tournament-high five goals and been the chief protagonist in Colombia's passage to the quarterfinals for the first time.
But it isn't just his numbers that have commanded attention. It is his balance, vision, ability with both feet and nerveless finishing that have led many to predict he could become Colombia's greatest ever player.
That mantle, it is unanimously agreed, currently belongs to Carlos "El Pibe" Valderrama, who led Los Cafeteros to three successive World Cup finals appearances in the 1990s.
But even Valderrama says James could supplant him.
"James has the potential to be the greatest Colombian player to have ever lived, and perhaps as one of the greatest to have ever played the game," Valderrama said last week.
"He's consistent, incredibly talented, and he's got more passion than any other player I've seen in all my years of playing and coaching professional football."
The son of a journeyman footballer and working mother, James was born in the city of Cucuta, on Colombia's border with Venezuela.
The family relocated to Ibague, about 150km west of the capital Bogota, when he was just six months old after James' father Wilson signed with local club Deportes Tolima.
Wilson battled drinking problems and separated from Pilar when James was three. Shortly after, Pilar met Juan Carlos Restrepo, who would become James' stepfather and a major influence on the youngster's career.
It was Juan Carlos who took James to his first club, Cooperamos Tolima, when he was seven.
The youngster quickly showed that he was different from other players his age. Locals still talk about the time when, in a junior final for Academia Tolimense against Cali, his intentional shot from a corner kick curved wickedly into the net. He repeated it minutes later just to prove it was no fluke.
It wasn't just his innate talent that set James apart. He also displayed an understanding for what is needed to succeed and an uncanny sense of his own destiny.
"A normal person has a social life, goes to parties and drinks," James said in an interview early in his career. "But a football player is abnormal. He goes to bed early, eats well and goes for naps."
Whispers about James' promise soon spread beyond Colombia's borders and in 2009 he uprooted to sign with Argentina's Banfield. There, he became the youngest foreign player to score in a league match at 17.
Europe was next to bear witness to his gifts. He joined Porto in 2010, where he continued his meteoric rise in the Primeira Liga.
Monaco came knocking last July and their 45 million-euro swoop made James the second most expensive transfer in Portuguese football's history.
Now there are reports that Real Madrid and Barcelona will pounce with a bank-breaking offer after the World Cup.
But James has unfinished business with Colombia's national team first. A clash against Brazil awaits Los Cafeteros in Fortaleza on July 4 with a place in the semifinals at stake.
Even if Colombia's World Cup dream abruptly ends, and tears are shed, history shows there is no way to puncture James Rodriguez's spirit.