Moscow is famous for its Red Square but in England its mention will forever invoke memories of a white round ball and the first time in 12 years they were able to use it to win a major tournament knockout game. And in a penalty shootout, at that. The rarest of routes to England victory, only their second in eight attempts.
Colombia were their opposition in bright yellow but with a dark core to their game plan in a match of fierce drama played out in the Spartak Stadium, which could’ve been Bogota, or Medellin. The stands were awash with yellow and only a smudge of white. The Colombian supporters outnumbered England’s five-to-one. They booed and jeered every England player’s touch, and there were many.
This was different to the Group G matches which England cruised. The difference was in the air; the tension, the noise, the bite, the meaning; that one team would be on their way home when they left.
So England passed the ball around the back. One way. Then the next. They passed and passed and passed, religiously with patience and a calmness which belied their lesser international inexperience and status as the youngest remaining side in the tournament. Their composure annoyed the hell out of the Colombians, but that was, quite frankly, not England’s problem. Even though Colombia were determined to make it England’s problem.
The game turned spiky, quickly, with plenty of contentious decisions. Wilmar Barrios clearly head-butted Jordan Henderson as they waited for a Kieran Trippier free-kick in a Colombia wall, five minutes before the break. It wasn’t one of those put your forehead through someone’s front teeth head-butts, but it was a head-butt in the literal sense that the Colombian’s head butted into the Liverpool midfielder. Not the sort of thing that would get you kicked out of a nightclub, granted, but definitely a red card offence on a football field. Referee Mark Geiger only gave out a yellow card.
Barrios had earlier shoved Raheem Sterling off the pitch, without making any attempt at the ball. Yerry Mina twice rode all over Raheem Sterling, almost half his size.
Not much has been made of how slight this England team is. Manager Gareth Southgate went for small and nibble rather than big a burly in his selection and the taller Colombians reacted accordingly: roughing up and wrestling. Harry Maguire and Jose Cuadrado shoved each other in England’s corner. Radamel Falcao got up in Trippier’s face. After the head-butt, with Henderson on the deck, Jesse Lingard had to be restrained by his team-mates as the players jostled with each other. It really could’ve been Wetherspoons on a Friday night at last orders.
Amidst it all, the only clear chance of the first half fell to Harry Kane. He had scored with all five of his previous efforts on target at the World Cup so when Sterling dribbled down the right flank and laid back to Trippier to curl in one of those delicious crosses that have become standard, it felt as though at the back post, three yards out, all England’s captain had to do was steer the ball into the gaping net. But the angle was wrong, and the ball flew over.
Colombia manager Jose Peckerman said last week that England should expect a full-on, to-the-death match. It was a marvel that nobody got more seriously hurt.
Even at half-time, as Sterling jogged towards the tunnel, a Colombian coach shoulder barged him unnecessarily. Sterling turned around, but sensibly did not respond.
So when Colombia’s approach finally backfired ten minutes into the second half, aided by a glorious piece of England set play inventory, it was fully deserved. To stop all the holding, at a Trippier corner England’s main targets lined up one behind the other: Kane, Henderson, Maguire, Stones. Carlos Sanchez tried to keep hold of Kane as the ball came in but bundled him to the ground. Clear penalty.
In keeping with Colombia’s dark arts, Johan Mojica raked up the penalty spot with his studs while their players argued, for three-and-a-half minutes, with the referee. Regardless: Kane doesn’t miss penalties. He has a wonderful ability to blot everything else out – he had a long wait for a spot-kick against Panama as well – and keep calm. In trying circumstances and when it mattered, everyone followed their captain’s lead.
The game crept towards its conclusion. It was done, it was over. But it wasn’t. Mateus Uribe’s shot was flying into the top right corner until Pickford reached finger-tips to it – not so short, this time. But it forced the corner from which Colombia dragged the game into extra-time, three minutes into time added on. The game should’ve been over; not England’s World Cup.
When Jordan Henderson was the first of six players to miss in the shootout it seemed as though this was the end. But Uribe hit the bar, Pickford saved from Carlos Bacca, and substitute Eric Dier delivered.
If ever there was a test of the mature, responsible young adults Southgate has tried to fill England shirts with, this was it. Southgate wanted the nation to hear their stories, to connect them, to empower them, but this was time for them to write new ones on the football pitch. And they are not over, yet.