At the end, in the darkness of the Russian midnight sky, James Rodriguez simply stared into the middle distance, pondering what could have been and wondering where it had all gone wrong for Colombia. In the stands he had lived the game with the partisanship of a fan and the existential sadness of a player shackled by injury. He shied away from Diego Maradona-esque histrionics, but Rodriguez, the breakout star of the last World Cup, shrieked and shouted, cheered and jeered, alongside Estebian Cambassio, as a horror night of profound drama unwound and ultimately unravelled for the South Americans.
Helpless, powerless and inconsolable, he shed tears on the Colombian bench as the emptiness of elimination engulfed him. Rodriguez’s existential crisis wasn’t arcane: the baby-faced star had been part of Colombia’s problem during the match. At the same time, he was also the solution. They needed his deft skill set, his vision and goal-scoring nous; with the problem solver out of the game the Colombians proffered neither constructive football nor South American flair. They tweaked the definition of football instead: chicanery and subterfuge were suddenly allowed.
In resorting to the dark arts, they ran, tackled, hassled, hustled, bustled and kicked the English players. At times, they even wrestled, so much so that Harry Kane, the talismanic English striker, was awarded a penalty in the 54th minute, with Carlos Sanchez oblivious to Panama’s punishment for grappling in Nizhny Novgorod during the group stages. The Colombians buzzed with malevolent intent and refined cunning: they didn’t care for sustained possession, but instead drained the essence and beauty out of the game. Football was no longer a sport to be enjoyed. With surgical precision, yet wielding a blunt scalpel, Colombia removed all the virtues from the game.
The English, brimming with self-confidence following a commendable first round and the nascent arrival of a new, joyous generation, dominated, but, in a peculiar sense, they didn’t at all. In a maddening melee this game had the emotional tone of a Copa Libertadores match, a South American World Cup qualifier and a World Cup knockout game rolled all into one as the Spartak Stadium transformed into a cacophonous jukebox of hysteria and frenzy. Skulduggery prevailed, actual football came at a premium. Not that England were innocent. In a cast of pantomime villains, they were as devious, Harry Maguire going toe-to-toe with Neymar in perfecting the art of simulation. They had, as England coach Gareth Southgate put it after the game, become ‘smarter.’
Colombia’s limited aptitude and raucous attitude unhinged American referee Mark Geiger and unsettled England. In a singular act of antagonistic unity, the 22 players pestered Geiger incessantly, standing in front of the ball on free kicks, wrestling in the wall, and complaining about every discernible triviality. The players were neurotic about the man in the middle.
In the face of so much petulance and so little decorum, Geiger was a man possessed, wrecking the entire flow — if there ever was one — of the match. He allowed for too much feedback on his decisions. At least, he didn’t indulge Maguire’s risible demand for a VAR review, but Geiger never projected any authority. In fact, he simply didn’t seem to have any clout, his substandard refereeing undeserving of a World Cup. Even at the start of the prolongations the Geiger show rolled on with a stunningly bad decision as Ashley Young showed his studs against Wilmar Barrios, awarding a free-kick to England.
By then, Colombia enjoyed the momentum following Yerry Mina’s dramatic 92nd minute equaliser. He had provoked a malfunction from the England defence on a set-piece. The Colombian fans, who so buoyantly had bellowed the word of their national anthem — Oh gloria inmarcesible — and vastly outnumbered their European counterparts in a meandering yellow mass — were ecstatic, but it was to for a last time.
England, reestablishing the balance in the last 15 minutes of extra-time, prevailed in a penalty shout, a frantic finale of a night that was Homeric and shocking in equal measure. For the English, there was to be no harrowing deja vu from the penalty spot. When their moment finally arrived in the form of an Eric Dier conversion, they were left a little bemused, celebrating victory with the uncanny awkwardness of novices. Away from the English beano, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman fought back the tears. Rodriguez, overcome, didn’t: his ballsy Colombia were out.