For the final minutes of Japan’s Group H contest, the “Samurai Blue”—despite trailing Poland 1-0—opted to play the ball around in their own defence with no attempt to enter into the opposing half of the field.
In the other match being played simultaneously, Senegal, who were also down a solitary goal, were throwing everything they had at Colombia—in a desperate bid to draw level.
At the final whistle, Senegal and Japan had identical points, goals scored and goals conceded. But it is Japan who will advance to the Round of 16, based on a superior disciplinary record, while the “Lions of Teranga”—who tried to win every match—are out.
FIFA calls it, without a trace of irony, the “Fair Play” tie-breaker. And with that, the final African nation was eliminated from the Russia 2018 World Cup today, just two weeks into the competition.
To be fair, it beats a coin toss. But maybe FIFA can try a tie-breaker that is more encouraging to positive play next time, like corner kicks won, time spent on the ball in the opposing end of the field… And maybe which team captain can name three interesting facts about Nelson Mandela.
Not that Japan were the only wet blankets today. England and Belgium brought the group stage to a close with a match that had about as much authenticity as a political approval poll in North Korea.
The Group G winner’s reward was to advance to a side of the bracket that comprised teams with 10 World Cup trophies between them—Brazil (5), Argentina (2), Uruguay (2) and France (1)—and the current European champion, Portugal.
In contrast, the runners-up would take their place among seven teams with only a solitary World Cup title success—Spain—on their CV.
Media reports suggested that Belgium captain Eden Hazard and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne—both England Premier League stars—begged coach Roberto Martinez to play. Surely, England captain Harry Kane, who is the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals, would have been just as keen.
None of them got so much as a minute on the field though, as, in a new World Cup record, the teams combined for 17 changes to their first XI. England coach Gareth Southgate started with eight substitutes, Martinez went for nine.
Spare a thought for the 60,000-plus patrons who shelled out good money for that fixture. It was like buying a ticket for Beyoncé in Concert and getting Solange instead.
Belgium scored the game’s only goal through midfielder Adnan Januzaj—a former EPL flop with Manchester United and Sunderland—in the 51st minute. And just to confirm how much the match meant to him, Southgate sent on Danny Wellbeck instead of Kane to “hunt” for an equaliser.
In the past three years, Wellbeck’s only international goals were against Lithuania, Malta and in a friendly to Costa Rica. Nuff said.
Belgium’s next outing will be on Monday when they face Japan. But their next opponent will be either Brazil or Mexico and, if they get to the semifinal, it will be one from France, Argentina, Uruguay and Portugal who will be waiting.
In contrast, England drew Colombia for the Round of 16 match on Tuesday. And, if they advance, it will be either Sweden or Switzerland in the quarters before one from Spain, Russia, Croatia and Denmark in the final four.
Time will tell if today’s England/Belgium group match—played with all the endeavour of a government staffer after his lunch break on Carnival Friday—would affect the momentum of either side.
Of course, the two European nations earned the right to put their feet up after a pair of opening wins. Senegal should have secured their own progress on match day two against Japan, only to let the Samurai equalise twice.
Today, facing their toughest opponent of the tournament so far, coach Aliou Cisse’s squad was brave, organised and dogged. But they lacked the bit of creativity and quality in the attacking third to undo an experienced Colombian team.
And it meant another largely sterile showing from Senegal and Liverpool star Sadio Mane—a man who could have surely gotten a job as stunt double for calypsonian Allrounder if the football thing didn’t work out.
At the other end, it took just one lapse for them to fall behind.
One of football’s great proverbs—right after never pass the ball across your own goal area and never lean back when shooting—is never make a substitution while you are defending a set piece.
To be fair to Cisse, his left back, Youssouf Sabaly, did not appear to be in the best of health. But, seconds after Cisse replaced Sabaly with Moussa Wague, the Colombians were dancing on the side of the field, as towering defender Yerry Mina met Juan Quintero’s corner kick with a thumping header—his second such goal of the tournament.
The less said about the Senegal midfielder Idrissa Gueye’s goal line “defending”, the better. Gueye was leaning casually against an upright as though waiting for an order of doubles at the Dial.
And let’s just say that Mina’s serving, which flew past the startled Senegalese, came with no sweet sauce and plenty pepper.
Tomorrow is the first off day of the tournament before action resumes on Saturday with a clash between France and Argentina in Kazan. Or, to put that another way, Friday 29 June is “Wives and Girlfriends Day”. Enjoy it responsibly.
Russia 2018 World Cup
Japan 0, Poland 1 (Jan Bednarek 59), Group H, Volgograd;
Senegal 0, Colombia 1 (Yerry Mina 73), Group H, Samara;
Panama 1 (Yassine Meriah OG 33), Tunisia 2 (Fakhreddine Ben Youssef 51, Wahbi Khazri 66), Group G, Saransk;
England 0, Belgium 1 (Adnan Januzaj 51), Group G, Kaliningrad.
Round of 16 fixtures
(Saturday 30 June)
France (C1) v Argentina (D2), 10am, Kazan;
Uruguay (A1) v Portugal (B2), 2pm, Sochi;
(Sunday 1 July)
Spain (B1) v Russia (A2), 10am, Moscow;
Croatia (D1) v Denmark (C2), 2pm, Nizhny Novgorod;
(Monday 2 July)
Brazil (E1) v Mexico (F2), 10am, Samara;
Belgium (G1) v Japan (H2), 2pm, Rostov-On-Don;
(Tuesday 3 July)
Sweden (F1) v Switzerland (E2), 10am, St Petersburg;
Colombia (H1) v England (G2), 2pm, Moscow.
Knock out match-ups
France (C1)/Argentina (D2) vs Uruguay (A1)/Portugal (B2);
Brazil (E1)/Mexico (F2) vs Belgium (G1)/Japan (H2);
Spain (B1)/Russia (A2) vs Croatia (D1)/Denmark (C2);
Sweden (F1)/Switzerland (E2) vs Colombia (H1)/England (G2).