Referee not the determining factor in Colombia defeat
No sooner had the whistle blown on Colombia's historic World Cup campaign when the anger and frustration spilled out of the team's battle-bruised camp: It's a fix! An embarrassment! What a farce!
Battered, cajoled and bullied by a physical Brazil side intent on shackling Colombia's attacking talents -- namely James Rodriguez and Juan Guillermo Cuadrado -- viewers back home greeted the country's exit with despair and fury.
That Brazil's jogo bonito could have been replaced by this, an almost antithesis of the team's once majestic game, was one thing; but Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo's bias in favour of the host nation was too blatant, too shameful to ignore.
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From the stands in Fortaleza's Estadio Castelao to the millions watching from their armchairs in Colombia, a maelstrom of emotional outpouring fizzed through the media and across social networking sites. Colombia was smarting, and Carballo's performance had provided them with reason to lash out.
As Rodriguez crashed to the floor, tears streaming down his youthful cheeks, injured teammate Radamel Falcao stormed the following from his Twitter account: "For the next game, let's remember to call the ref, because today he didn't turn up."
That Colombia's consummate professional, a player known for his humility and restraint, couldn't hold back his dismay, merely offered encouragement to the rest of his countrymen who were seething under the emotional strain of having just witnessed 90 minutes of intense, relentless physicality.
A few hours later, a video showing Colombia had been "robbed" swept the internet. It portrayed clearly why head coach Jose Pekerman's side had had a Mario Yepes goal wrongly disallowed for offside. It was true; the goal should have stood.
Minutes after the incident, a frustrated Rodriguez swiped the legs of Hulk and was shown a yellow card. That he, the man who had been ceaselessly targeted all afternoon, could have been booked was outrageous. Luiz's awkwardly brilliant shot from the resulting free kick that doubled Brazil's lead merely rubbed salt in the wounds.
In the post-match press conference, an English journalist pointed to the fact that the game had seen 54 fouls, a record number for this tournament. Brazil had meted out 31 of those -- Colombia eight fewer -- but had only seen two yellows. One of those, Colombia charged, should have been a red.
But while it was clear Colombia had suffered under the lenient hand of a referee nervous of reaching for his cards, this was far from a game that had been "bought." Carballo deserves criticism for allowing too many hefty challenges to go unpunished and for some of his erratic decisions, but his handling was poor, not bent.
Players from both teams were extremely lucky to escape tougher sanctions in a game that was allowed to drift, at times, into a venomous and unpleasant clash. Brazil's midfield had stifled and recklessly suffocated Rodriguez and Cuadrado, but Carlos Sanchez, too, was a walking yellow card. Camilo Zuniga's knee in the back of Neymar at the end again demonstrated the referee's sloppy control of the game.
For captain Yepes' disallowed goal, it was a decision the referee got wrong. But in a crowded penalty area with arms and feet flailing, the marginal decision was hardly surprising and not unlike those seen in most games. The Rodriguez booking for Luiz's decisive free kick a few minutes later was harsh, but it didn't alter the fact that a foul had been committed and the Chelsea defender would have scored anyway.
Of course, Brazil as the home nation received the rub of the green. In a stadium that was packed to the rafters with an edgy and thundering home crowd, it would have taken a man with a robotic disposition to ignore the Brazil fans' vociferous backing. It's not fair, but that's football, and for anyone who has watched the Copa Libertadores, these peripheral factors are a regular feature of games across the continent.
Instead, where Colombia went wrong was in the smaller details. In the Estadio Castelao's cauldron of passion and expectancy, Thiago Silva's goal after seven minutes was crucial to calming the nerves of Luiz Felipe Scolari's troubled side. Sanchez's error had been palpable in letting the PSG man drift unmarked in front of him, but as Pekerman later commented, Brazil had made the key moments count. Just like Colombia had benefitted from being clinical against Ivory Coast earlier in the tournament to wrestle three points from a game that was perhaps more deserving of a draw, Brazil had now shown the same sharpness.
It threw Colombia's game plan out the window and from then on, they looked in real trouble. Particularly down the wings where Hulk terrorised Zuniga, Colombia appeared vulnerable. At halftime, if it hadn't been for goalkeeper David Ospina, Brazil would have been further ahead.
For the first time this World Cup, a team had put Colombia's defence under intense pressure, and just like against Chile in the penultimate game of the qualifiers, their back line looked completely exposed. The barrage of Brazilian attacks had forced Sanchez to drop almost into central defence as Colombia defended deep and lost any sort of link-up to the rest of the team. Victor Ibarbo, who was drafted into the side as a replacement for Jackson Martinez, failed to control Maicon down his right, which left Zuniga with such problems. Midfielder Fredy Guarin was also unable to settle into the game as Colombia's great attacking strength was nullified by a Brazil side that came at them time and time again.
After the break, things improved, but Colombia were still far from their slick and purposeful best. Frustration often boiled over, and Cuadrado was guilty of engaging in a pointless battle with the referee over a lack of cards. There was plenty of fight, and the introduction of Adrian Ramos and Carlos Bacca helped provide more attacking bite.
But only in the last 20 minutes did Colombia really show the class and style that has left such a hugely impressive mark on this World Cup. Rodriguez was again the spur, and the 22-year-old deserves immense credit for almost dragging the game into extra time.
Ultimately, though, for long periods Colombia were second best against a Brazil playing their most impressive football of the tournament. The referee may have been responsible for allowing any quality to be sucked out of the game and in Brazil's favour, but his performance wasn't decisive in determining the result.
Carl Worswick is a British journalist who has spent the last four years living in the Colombian capital Bogota. He writes for the likes of The Blizzard, World Soccer, WSC and Fifa.com and will be in Brazil this summer writing about the Colombian national team.