Cape Town — One cannot imagine the weight on the shoulders of 42-year-old Senegalese coach Aliou Cissé and his team as they stepped out on to Cosomos Arena in Samara, Russia. Sheer walls of yellow-adorned Colombian fans made their presence known to Africa's last hope in the World Cup, shouting and dancing ahead of the clash between the Group H rivals. Senegalese supporters were certainly out in force as well in their brightly coloured costumes, making the battle for the ambience of the stadium nearly as pitched as the performance on the field.
At first it seemed Senegal had the upper hand against Colombia, with the Teranga Lions having already beaten the higher-ranked Poland decisively and managing a draw against a determined Japanese side. 77% of votes from an allAfrica Twitter poll agreed with the sentiment but, as has so often been the case this World Cup, expectations don't always line up with reality.
Kick-off - after 5 minutes, both teams only seemed to be sizing each other up. Conservative passing was the order of the day for both the Teranga Lions and the Colombian Coffee Growers, at least for the first few minutes of play. At 7:30 minutes in, Serbian referee Milorad Mazic awarded the first free-kick of the match to Senegal, with Keita Balde taking a shot towards the posts. Colombian keeper Ospina made easy work of catching the ball.
11 minutes in. The ball was chipped towards Colombian Radamel Falcao who unwittingly ended up sandwiched by Sabaly and Koulibaly of Senegal as he tried to seize the ball from the air. The challenge earned the South Americans a free-kick, with Quintero curling the ball towards the posts. Senegal keeper Khadim N'Diaye resolved to put the ball away for a corner after it bounced awkwardly in front of him.
At 15 mins, Senegal went on the attack, surging into the Colombians' territory. Davinson Sánchez sought to end a promising play by using a sliding tackle against Mane in the penalty box, bringing the Senegalese player down to shouts of outrage from the African supporters. A penalty seemed to be assured until referee Mazic consulted with the VAR (video assistant referees) to reverse the decision, much to the Senegal fans' disappointment.
At 21 minutes, Senegal earned another free-kick on the left, with Ketia Blade sending the ball to Niang. 25 minutes and Senegal's Idrissa Gueye tried his luck by taking a late tackle against James Rodriguez and stepping on his toe. Gueya's gutsy display apparently wasn't meant to harm the Colombian star player but came as he and four of his team-mates stood on the verge of receiving red cards. Colombia got a free-kick for Rodriguez's trouble at the 24 minute mark, with Quintero delivering a fine shot to an otherwise off-side Falcao, who headed the ball over the posts.
27 minutes and Davinson Sánchez tackled Mane once again, this time with the ball rebounding to Keita. Keita took a shot at the Colombian posts but goalkeeper Ospina cut his hopes short and caught the ball. Three-quarters into the first half and substitution time came for Colombia, with Muriel replacing a visibly upset James Rodriguez. Senegal's pace seemed to have put the South Americans on the backfoot as the only real test for the African's side's keeper this far into the game came from a single free-kick.
At 35 minutes, Carlos Sánchez brought Mane down with a push about 27 metres from the South American posts. Senegal centre-back Salif Sane received the ball and took a shot at goal, sending it way off target. Senegal went on the attack again at the 39 minute mark but ran the ball out of play while Colombia's Johan Mojica took a fall. The end of the first half began to loom and neither team had made any real progress in breaking their opposition's defence. At 42 minutes, Falcao brought the ball to the edge of Senegal's penalty area but failed to maintain control, causing it to roll away. Falcao took a risky tackle on Gassama, bringing him down and earning the Lions a free-kick, though nothing came of it.
45 minutes and referee Mazic decided to add three minutes of stoppage time. Any hope of some last-minute drama disappeared as, despite Johan Mojica receiving the first yellow card of the match for a foul on Ismaila Sarr and earning the Africans a free-kick, the resultant shot was far from a threat to keeper Ospina as it skewed wide. Regardless, Senegal appeared to keep the South Americans in check, with Falcao's off-side header being the closest thing that amounted to a threat for the Africans in the first part of the match.
My co-worker Jerry Chifamba was bemused by Senegal's status as the final African team in the tournament, saying: "It's funny the team with the shittiest jersey is the last one standing. They spent most of their time perfecting their game, unlike Nigeria, who were busy fine-tuning how their jersey looked." Jerry is no fan of VAR either. "Oh sorry, but that Video Assistant Referee system is bullshit. We enjoyed soccer back then when the referee's confusion was final."
The players returned to the field and noise from the fans was at a high. At 51 minutes, Mbaye Niang of Senegal and Colombia's Yerry Mina both went for the ball, with the South American going down rather theatrically after receiving a boot on the hip from the African. Niang got a yellow card as a result. Three minutes later and the theatrics continued with Senegal's Sarr appearing to fling himself to the ground after slight contact with Carlos Sánchez. The referee wasn't interested and play continued.
62 minutes: Mane went on the attack but was pushed from behind by Carlos Sánchez. Senegal was granted a free-kick just outside Colombia's box and Mane decided to take a shot at the posts. He slipped as he took the kick, sending the ball harmlessly away as the Colombian supporters breathed a sigh of relief. At the 66 minute mark, a corner for Colombia saw an unmarked Falcao head the ball off target from what could have been the South American side's first goal of the game. 74 mintues and Senegal made a substitution, sending an injured Sabaly off and bringing Wague on.
Falcao's failed attempt to score was rectified in the same minute as the Senegalese substitution when, in a similar scenario, an unmarked Yerry Mina rose up to send the ball past Senegalese keeper N'Diaye. Senegal's response to Colombia's fortune was swift, with Niang braving an attack that saw the ball head wide to the right of goal, Colombian keeper Ospina making quick work of pushing it away for a corner. The resultant shot saw Mina divert the ball to the Colombian keeper who took to the ground after saving the ball.
At 80 minutes a chance for Senegal saw a cross from Mane to Sarr, who squandered it by taking a massively off-target shot at the posts. The Africans then took an opportunity to make a substitution, Konate replacing Keita Balde. 10 minutes of regular play time left and despite Senegal's furious attempts to draw, the Africans appeared to lose spirit. 83 minutes and Colombia made another substitution, with Uribe heading off and Lerma coming on to replace him. At 86 minutes Senegal followed suit and made their final substitution of the match, sending Niang off, and bringing Sakh on. With the end in sight, Colombia appeared to be playing for time, making no decisive attacks and preferring to keep the ball out of Senegal's control instead. At the 89th minute Falcao came off and took his time to transfer the captain's band to Carlos Sánchez as Miguel Borja came on to the field.
4 minutes of time were added at the end of full-time but to no avail for the Lions of Teranga - Colombia's single goal was enough to end Africa's World Cup hopes and bring the South American side to the next round as the winners of Group H. With all other African teams out, fellow editor Nontobeko Mlambo took Senegal's loss personally, saying: "All African teams are a bunch of losers, from the whole continent."