London: When teams lose their star players in the course of a tournament like the World Cup, they react in different ways. In 2014, after a horrendous foul in the match against Colombia, Brazil lost Neymar. Their talisman was taken away from the host nation. And they reacted with an explosion of emotion. The challenge in the quarter-finals from Juan Zuniga had left Neymar with a broken back. Initially though, there were fears of a life-threatening and career-ending injury. In the end it was enough to keep him out of the game for six weeks.
The injury seemed to derail the Brazilians. When goalkeeper Julio Cesar and defender David Luis lined for their national anthem in the semi-final, both held up Neymar’s jersey. It was an uncommon gesture. Next to the Brazilians, the Germans lined up with only one goal in site. (Or, in this case, seven goals.)
Brazil without Neymar were swept away by the Germans. But the Brazilians looked beaten even before they had touched the ball. It was as if without Neymar they had lost in the mind. The Germans merely confirmed that loss on the pitch.
On Tuesday night, Colombia seemed to react to James Rodriguez’s absence in a somewhat different way. Instead of letting the 2014 top scorer’s injury cripple their self-belief, like it had the Brazilians, the Colombians steeped onto the pitch against England with a plan to hassle, harry and roughhouse the English. The idea, perhaps, was to provoke the English into a response, break down Gareth Southgate’s organization, and then pick off Harry Kane’s men with a goal, maybe two. Then defend. And if that didn’t work, the English, surely, would melt at the prospect of penalties.
For viewers expecting to see the sparkling Colombia that pulled apart Poland earlier in the tournament, it was a disappointment. It was an engrossing tactical contest to watch. But it wasn’t beautiful football by any means. It was not merely the abrasive nature of the Colombian style that stood out, but also the needlessness of some of the needling.
Kane had to wait for almost four minutes to take his penalty. All that while, Colombian players turned their ire on the referee, American Mark Geiger. The ploy was simple. The penalty had been given. VAR had confirmed the foul on Kane. But the Colombians saw the protests as a chance to unsettle the other party in the game: the referee. And it worked. Geiger only barely managed to keep the game under control. Indeed credit for that should rather go to cool heads in the England camp.
Meanwhile, at the end of the first half, Raheem Sterling was nudged in the shoulder by a Colombian team official as he trotted off into the tunnel. Why? Mind games, presumably.
But did Colombia have to play like this at all? Yes, they did start World Cup 2018 with a red card in the match against Japan. But that arose not from malice, but a desperate handball to prevent a Japanese attempt bound for goal.
In the matches since, the Colombians have committed 10-15 fouls per match.
A cursory glance at Colombia’s disciplinary record against England suggests that Jose Pekerman’s men went for a change of tack in the England match. In one single match the Colombians not only doubled their tally of yellow cards in the World Cup so far, but also overtook their total tally of five yellows in the entire course of the 2014 World Cup.
But did their strategy work? Did the harrying and harassing provoke a response from their opponents?
If Pekerman’s master plan was to draw the English into a war of dirty attrition, that plan was not a success. The English held on, resisted the provocation with few exceptions, and despite that equalizer in stoppage time, held their nerve through both halves of extra time. Indeed the tone of the match that had already changed after the Colombian goal seemed to change again in the second half of extra time as England kept possession and seemed to regain confidence. By then, the Colombians were probably playing for penalties anyway.
Given English tendencies, it may have seemed like a safe gamble to play. But this time odds were in England’s favour. Afterwards, in the Colombian dugout, James Rodriguez sat with his head in his hands. His absence had changed everything.