World Cup drama sees Colombia advance, Senegal eliminated on obscure tiebreaker

The group stage at the 2018 World Cup has had everything. Late goals. Controversy. Final day drama. And now, after one of the most entertaining four-team groupings ended with two hours of tension and emotional swings, it has a World Cup first: Senegal is going home on the arcane tiebreaker known as “fair play.”

Colombia and Japan qualified for the Round of 16 on Thursday at the expense of Senegal in bizarre fashion: Because over the three games, Japan had picked up four yellow cards, while Senegal had earned six.

That was the only reason. Two yellow cards were all that separated the teams. Colombia’s 1-0 win over Senegal and Poland’s 1-0 defeat of Japan on Thursday left Japan and Senegal tied on points (4), goal differential (0), goals scored (4), and the head-to-head tiebreaker (draw). It brought in the sixth of seven group tiebreakers, “fair play.”

Colombia won 2018 World Cup Group H on Yerry Mina’s second-half header against Senegal. (Reuters)
Colombia won 2018 World Cup Group H on Yerry Mina’s second-half header against Senegal. (Reuters)

The strange scenario left Japan playing for a 1-0 loss, passing the ball around in stoppage time without any intent, knowing that it was carrying fewer yellow cards than Senegal, and knowing Colombia had the 1-0 lead.

Senegal was dejected. Dumbfounded. And it has a right to feel aggrieved.

But such are FIFA’s rules. The alternative – the seventh and final tiebreaker – was a random drawing. So at the end of a dramatic 90 minutes, and Senegal’s search for an equalizer came up empty, it was left with no alternative but to rue both its missed chances and that obscure tiebreaker that it wouldn’t have even had in mind during its first two games.

Should Senegal have had a penalty?

The first big moment of the simultaneous matches arrived 16 minutes into play in Samara. Davinson Sanchez brought down Sadio Mane in the box with a last-ditch tackle, and the referee initially pointed to the penalty spot.

But replays – which the referee saw in his pitchside review – showed clearly that Sanchez won the ball with his heel. The call was correctly overturned. Colombia survived for the time being.

But the South Americans were second-best throughout the first half. Senegal’s center backs ate Radamel Falcao alive. Colombian defenders and defensive midfielders struggled to cope with the movement and pace of Senegal’s front four. And Colombia was more or less missing its best player.

James exits with injury

Colombian star James Rodriguez, the Golden Boot winner four years ago, came into the 2018 World Cup carrying a calf injury. It kept him out of the starting lineup for his team’s first game. But he returned on Matchday 2, and, well, he looked like himself:

But he clearly wasn’t right on Thursday. Manager Jose Pekerman conceded as much a half-hour in, and replaced him with Luis Muriel. James was dejected walking off the field and straight down the tunnel. He wore a pained expression during the second half as he watched from the bench.

With James off, Colombia wasn’t right. Juan Quintero couldn’t shoulder the creative load. Muriel was ineffective. Colombia needed a goal, but couldn’t even get close to creating a clear-cut chance.

Kawashima saves Japan

Colombia needed a goal because Japan and Poland were still deadlocked at 0-0. But only the save of the tournament kept it that way in the first half. Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima scrambled across his goal line to claw away Kamil Grosicki’s header:

But he could only keep Poland off the board for so long.

The all-important goals

The first all-important goal arrived just before the hour mark. Jan Bednarek eluded his marker on a free kick and side-footed a volley past Kawashima:

The goal changed everything. Japan tumbled from first place to third. Senegal went from runner-up to group winner. Colombia went from eliminated to safe.

But there was another goal to come that would re-shape the group once again. Yerry Mina headed Colombia into the lead with 17 minutes remaining:

Mina’s goal sent Colombia to the top of the group, and put Japan and Senegal level once again. Japan’s discipline gave it the slight tiebreaker advantage. Both Colombia and Japan held on to secure their spots in the knockout rounds.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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