Senegal got knocked out of the World Cup this afternoon after they lost to Colombia by a score of 1-0. This is a bummer, because Senegal were one of the most entertaining and likable teams in the tournament. However, Senegal have no one to blame other than themselves for how things went down.
It would be easy to fault FIFA for Senegal’s exit because of the somewhat strange tiebreaker that separated them from Japan even though both teams ended the group stage with four points apiece. This is because the tiebreaker that gave Japan the Round of 16 spot at Senegal’s expense was the fair play rule that looks at how many yellow or red cards a team racked up and favors the team that was shown fewer cautions. Senegal got five yellows to Japan’s three, which means they are going home while Japan are going on.
On its face, yellow cards are a pretty ridiculous way to differentiate between two teams. To consider Japan a better team than Senegal just because they may have slid into a couple fewer late tackles doesn’t feel like a satisfying way of determining such an important thing like who gets to advance to the knockout rounds of the World Cup. But when you consider the context, the fair play rule isn’t quite as stupid as it seems.
First of all, the order of FIFA’s World Cup tiebreakers make a lot of sense. If two teams are tied are points, the first tiebreaker is goal difference. If that can’t separate the teams, then you look at total goals scored. If those two stats are still even, then you look at the result of the match between the two teams in question. If the head-to-head match ended in a draw, only then do you trigger the fair play rule. Finally, if the two teams have the same number of cards, then FIFA flips a coin to determine who goes through. Senegal and Japan each had four points, each had an overall goal difference of zero, each scored four goals, and the match between the two teams ended in a draw. Hence why the fair play rule was the determinative one.
It might feel a little icky kicking Senegal out of the World Cup because of their yellow card count, but the fair play rule is really just as good a rule as any other conceivable one. Of the four tiebreakers, three are valid objective measures of a team’s quality, one is completely random, and the other is arguably a little bit silly but still reflects a difference in how the two teams played. Because Senegal and Japan couldn’t be separated by the three indisputably valid criteria, it’s hardly any worse to determine who gets to advance based on yellow cards instead of on a coin flip. The 2014 World Cup didn’t have the fair play tiebreaker and instead went straight to a coin flip after the head-to-head one. It’s difficult to imagine an additional tiebreaker that would be any more fair than the fair play one, and at least the fair play one has something to do with what actually happened on the pitch.
And at any rate, Senegal never should’ve even gotten in this predicament. They had every chance to secure their Round of 16 spot the normal way, and it’s their own fault that they didn’t. Senegal’s Sadio Mané was the best player in the entire group. (James Rodríguez would argue with this, but his calf injury limited his effectiveness and his time on the pitch.) Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly was the group’s best defender. They also had the toughest defensive midfielders, the best forward line, and had a super smart tactical setup that played to the team’s strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Everything pointed to them being serious contenders to win the group.
Not only did Senegal have all those advantages on paper, they even played well enough in both games they failed to win to have come away with more points than they ultimately did. Senegal should’ve held onto one of the two leads they took in the Japan match only to cough up two points there, and they could’ve easily beaten Colombia today with better forward play and smarter set piece defending. A better first touch on the play that resulted in a penalty call that was later reversed on replay would’ve set up Mané for a very scoreable shot—
—and look at my man just watching Yerry Mina’s game-winning header fly right past him and tell me putting a man on the post isn’t the most useless allocation of corner-defending resources there is:
And on top of those crucial moments earlier in the match, Senegal didn’t even look all that pressed after Colombia score despite knowing they needed a goal to save themselves. Except for the first game of the group, Senegal never put together a complete performance, and that more than any weird tiebreaker is why they’re going home.
In spite of Senegal’s relative shortcomings, it still sucks that we won’t be seeing them again in the tournament. At their best they were one of the most thrilling teams to watch. Their speed and strength and technical quality and breadth of attacking power and tactical cohesion made them a favorite for neutrals everywhere. Plus, due to their counterattacking strengths and defensive mettle, Senegal presumably would’ve posed more of a threat to the opponents in the next round than Japan will. We’ll all miss what Senegal could’ve provided in the latter stages of this tournament.
Regardless of the numerous factors that made Senegal such a cool and fun team, it’s what they did on the pitch that prevented them from qualifying for the knockout rounds. Maybe Senegal’s accumulation of a couple more yellow cards than Japan doesn’t exactly mean they deserved to get bounced from the World Cup today, but they could’ve and should’ve made an irrefutable case that they did deserve to carry on, and they didn’t.