SAMARA, Russia — The "fair play" tiebreaker doesn’t seem all that fair to Senegal.
The last African team standing at the World Cup lost to Colombia 1-0 Thursday, leaving it even with Japan on record, goal differential, total goals and head-to-head. The next tiebreaker to determine who would move on as the second-place team in the group — Colombia was first — was a new one: which team accumulated fewer yellow cards. Japan had four, Senegal had six.
Japan lost to Poland 1-0 in the other group match , which was played at the same time. When Japan realized that second place would come down to the yellow-card tiebreaker, the Japanese started stalling.
"I don’t know if the regulation is cruel or not, but I can’t ask my players to go on the pitch in order to avoid yellow cards," coach Aliou Cisse said. "You have to be in contact with other players when you play football. This is how you play football. It worked against us."
Yerry Mina scored the only goal. The 6-foot-5 (1.95-meter) Barcelona defender leapt above a pair of Senegalese defenders to head the ball hard off the ground, off Senegal goalkeeper Khadim Ndiaye’s hand and into the net, sending the enthusiastic Colombian fans at Samara Stadium into a frenzy.
Colombia, which reached the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil, is the fourth South American team to advance, with only Peru getting eliminated. All five African teams failed to move on.
Colombia will face England on Tuesday in Moscow, while Japan goes on to face Belgium in Rostov-on-Don on Monday. Belgium defeated England 1-0 to decide their group in a late match Thursday night.
Japan and Senegal drew 2-2 in a back-and-forth match on Sunday. Japan beat Colombia 2-1 to begin the tournament, while Senegal beat Poland by the same score. If FIFA had not added the fair play tiebreaker for this World Cup, the two teams would have had to draw lots to determine which would advance.
"We would have preferred to be eliminated in another way," Cisse said. "But as I say, it’s pity for us, it’s a pity for our team. But we knew the regulations."
Many of Senegal’s players, including Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, would not speak to reporters following the disappointing loss.
Senegal’s Keita Balde was asked afterward if he knew during the game about Poland’s goal. He said his Monaco teammate, Colombian star Radamel Falcao, told him, but he didn’t get a chance to talk to his Senegalese teammates because he was so focused on the game.
"All of Africa was behind us, all Senegalese as well. And we leave with our head held up high, proud, and ready to give it all whatever comes," Balde said.
This is the first time since 1982 that no African teams have advanced from the first round.
Cisse pleaded with his team to move the ball up in the final frantic moments. It appeared as if Senegal knew they were finished in Russia at the final whistle.
Colombia is the only team in Russia to lose its opener and make it to the round of 16. The Colombians appeared that they had regained form with a 3-0 victory over Poland. James Rodriguez, the Bayern Munich star who was a substitute in the team’s opener because of a calf injury, set up two goals in that match.
But Colombia’s hopes appeared diminished when Rodriguez was replace by Luis Muriel because of an apparent injury in the 31st minute against Senegal. Falcao patted him on the back sympathetically as he headed to the sideline.
Rodriguez returned to the team bench in the second half, in time to see Mina’s header that gave Colombia the lead.
"We knew that Senegal was going to try to win the match and it’s too bad that James’ had to leave the match so early. He adds a lot of football and joy to our team. We are sad about this," Mina said. "We managed to overcome it and get a victory."
In the last 20 minutes of the other match, both teams were content with the result and neither Poland nor Japan tried to score. Meanwhile, Senegal scrambled and moved defenders forward desperate to get a goal to advance.
Senegal’s best chance was erased by a video review. It was used in the 18th minute when Colombia’s Davinson Sanchez tackled charging forward Sadio Mane. The referee originally gave Senegal the penalty kick, but the review went in Colombia’s favour.
Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said afterward he did not know Rodriguez’s status going forward.
"I am very concerned; it is a situation for us. He trained normally for us until yesterday. He was fully fit in training, and in the last training session there was no hint of any injury" Pekerman said. "Right now, I don’t know where he stands."
Carlos Sanchez returned to Los Cafeteros after sitting a one-match suspension of a red card just three minutes into the opener. Sanchez received criticisms and a death threat, which is being investigated by Colombian authorities. It referenced the murder of Colombian defender Andres Escobar following an own-goal at the 1994 World Cup.
Senegal’s last appearance in the World Cup came in 2002, when the team reached the quarterfinals. Current coach Aliou Cisse was the captain of that squad.
ALREADY WOUNDED: Colombia midfielder Abel Aguilar was unavailable after he was injured and taken off the field on a stretcher in the first half against Poland. Mateus Uribe took his place in that match and started against Senegal.
GROUP DYNAMICS: The Colombian fans were well aware of what their team needed to assure a spot in the knockout round: A win. They joined in unison to sing "Let’s go Colombia, tonight we have to win" to start the second half, momentarily drowning out the enthusiastic Senegalese drummers. Attendance was announced at 41,970.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Rodriguez’s departure was a blow to Colombia but Mina came through with his second goal in Russia.