England embrace ugly win vs. Colombia as World Cup turns feisty
MOSCOW -- In a tournament full of beautiful play, eye-popping wonder goals and grandstand finishes, there was, finally, this: the black eye.
Two black eyes, actually. And a fat lip. And the kind of nasty scrape that leaves blood dripping down one cheek.
How bad was it? Well, England vs. Colombia didn't feature the staggering skill of France vs. Argentina or the blistering pace of Belgium vs. Japan, but rather the body slams and arm bars of a Royal Rumble, as well as the head-butts, face rakes, ankle stamps and takedowns of a straight-up street fight.
Not that England was complaining after emerging on top, via a penalty shootout that followed a 1-1 draw.
"No one laid on the floor, and we stood there when it counted," captain Harry Kane said. "It was a big night for England."
It will be remembered most for the shootout, the one that England -- oh so woeful, historically, in such situations -- managed to win 4-3. But this game also stood out like a bright light -- or, really, a shiner -- for its ugliness. Thirty-six fouls were called over 120 minutes, and eight yellow cards were given out by referee Mark Geiger, who was surrounded by players from both sides after nearly every decision.
England fans (and players) were livid that Geiger did not send off Wilmer Barrios when, while bodying up Jordan Henderson before a first-half free kick, the Colombian raised his head backward and up into Henderson's chin. The England man, naturally, toppled as if he had collided with a city bus, writhing around in a display that wasn't quite Neymar-level but was cringe-worthy all the same.
Geiger, after listening to counsel in his earpiece, gave only a yellow. But the level of civility (such as it was) devolved from there. Later, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said he anticipated a game such as this because of the focus both teams put on trying to control set pieces, and Carlos Sanchez's attempt to keep Kane from running free on a corner kick bordered on unnecessary roughness from an NFL perspective.
Geiger, rightly, awarded the penalty that put England ahead on 57 minutes, and the Colombians -- despite what Perkman would claim -- seemed only to get more petulant.
"Everybody knew the match would be like this," Pekerman said, seemingly blaming Geiger without pointing his finger directly. "It was very uncomfortable to play this match with that feeling in the air."
He added: "There were so many interruptions in the game, far too many interruptions. If a team wants to play a certain style of football, all those interruptions aren't good. It hurt us."
While that sentiment felt a little hollow, given that Colombia committed 23 of the fouls and certainly could have been called for more, they also had grievances. Ashley Young might have been sent off after stamping on an opponent's foot and, after fouling Radamel Falcao, John Stones looked to drag his studs across the Colombian captain's head as he stepped over him. Both England players escaped without punishment.
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There were more pushes. More grappling. Could Geiger have done more? Perhaps. At a minimum, his tolerance for players storming after him and protesting his decisions contributed to the feelings of chaos. However, the referee can officiate only the game that the players choose to play in front of him.
With star scorer James Rodriguez out injured, Colombia offered so little in attack that their grit seemed the only way they could control the game. It was strange, as they are not typically a team thought of as so cynical. Uruguay? Perhaps. But not usually Pekerman and Colombia.
"We didn't rise to it, which was brilliant," England manager Gareth Southgate said before conceding: "In general. There were a couple of occasions when we did. But overall it was exceptional."
In some ways, it seemed fitting that the match would ultimately go to penalties after Yerry Mina evened the score in second-half stoppage time. A brutal match deserved the most brutal of finishes, and so it was that England would ignore their historic bruises to deliver in the shootout.
At the end of an evening with so much rancor, it was that simple: A shot. A miss. A shot. A goal. Falcao and the Colombian players dropped to the turf, finally felled by the last sting of frustration. Kane and his England teammates, meanwhile, celebrated like never before. They raised their arms. They smiled wide. They felt no pain.
To them, the ugliest game at this World Cup was gorgeous.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.