England are the story. Of course they are. To come successfully through an attritional game is always special. To do so in a World Cup, while also purging a difficult past makes it more so. Gareth Southgate and his players have advanced, Colombia are done.
Of course, the Colombian’s approach to the game has made it feel like a particularly righteous victory. If any team deserved to feel the sting of penalties, it was this one. Nobody can be certain where or from whom the directive came from, but these were players who took until the 75th minute to realise that there was a football game to win.
Supporters don’t often rewatch games that their team have lost. Under these circumstances, it’s even less likely. If the Colombian public were to do so, however, they would wonder what it was which possessed their players to turn a well-matched knockout game into a street brawl. With a goal to find and barely ten minutes of regular time to play, their side did find some balance and focus, but for the most part it was shockingly absent.
Post-game, Jose Pekerman took a rather classless swing at England’s tactics, claiming a shallow victory through a long-ball approach and the lottery of a penalty competition. Given how strong the association is between England and direct football, his public might even swallow that. A man of his experience will know better, though. In the cold light of day he’ll remember that his opposition passed the ball better and, when it was critical, held their nerve for longer.
What his comments betrayed though, is that he believed his side to be the technically more able of the two. The implication being, of course, that England won in the only way available to them. Whatever. The rights and wrongs of that are incidental, but it does pose a question: why, if ability, composure and finesse were Colombia’s allies, did they do their utmost to marginalise their importance within the game?
That’s a fair reading of the contest, too. England are not a team of shrinking violets and they also played with a sneer at times, but that arguably suited them far more. All of the players fielded by Southgate on Tuesday night earn their living in the Premier League where that kind of football is commonplace. The British game certainly isn’t as rugged as it once was and domestic matches rarely descend to the levels seen in Moscow, but English players don’t often shirk a physical challenge.
And yet Colombia invited one. Odd, because the profile of their players never suited that approach. They possess two towering centre-halves who can no doubt look after themselves and a couple of tough-boned destroyers in midfield, but their attacking football is dependent on cohesion and rhythm – qualities which tend to melt in the heat. To win, Pekerman’s players needed cool heads and gentle hearts, and yet out they came from the first bell, eyes popping and veins bulging.
In England, nobody cares. Nobody should, either. The only context in which the game’s tone matters is in the way it frames English victory. It posed a particular type of test to the players and, thankfully, it was one they were able to pass. Good for them.
But for Colombia, this was a catastrophe. England are a competent side, but not an unbeatable one. In particular, Southgate’s embryonic defence and single holding midfielder should have been made to look extremely vulnerable against such a gifted array of attacking players. Falcao and Cuadrado may have seen better days, both are probably beyond their prime, but Quintero showed his excellence throughout the group stage and, together, they should have created far more issues than they did.
But they didn’t because they weren’t allowed to. The game was taken away from them by the creation of the kind of toxic mood in which gifted players rarely flourish. Falcao spent the game in perpetual fury, Cuadrado was pre-occupied with a succession of running battles and imagined grievances, and pint-sized Quintero was completely lost to the chaos.
England are through. England are also through on penalties. Something good and something remarkable. But Colombia are out almost through their own volition and a weird determination to win the war rather than the game.
Ultimately, they lost both.
Also published on Medium.