Argentina 0 drew with Colombia 0 at El Monumental, crowd ~50,000, 2014 World Cup qualifiers, 7 June 2013.
The subte ride to Congreso de Tucumán reminded me of Australia vs. Japan for two reasons. The first, inexplicably, was a man wearing a Socceroos top. The second was the crowdedness of the train, which a sardine – or a Japanese – would have found positively spacious. The Socceroos were also brought to mind by Australia’s historical connection to Argentina vs. Colombia match-ups at El Monumental, after Los Cafeteros smashed the hosts 5-0 in 1993 to send Maradona and co. to a two-legged playoff with Australia for a spot at USA ’94, which they nicked 2-1.
Despite a gallant performance earning the Aussies a valuable point in Saitama on Tuesday, the Blue Samurai became the first team to book their ticket to Brazil 2014 with the 1-all draw. Meanwhile, Argentina – far from their nervy passage to the ’94 Mundial, sitting atop the Conmebol standings with 24 points from their first 11 eliminatorias – have also qualified for all intents and purposes besides the mathematician’s notepad. This week’s meetings with Colombia and Ecuador presented La Albiceleste with a chance to get the bean counters off their back and officially secure their place alongside Japan in the final 32.
On a cool and clear evening, there was an uneasy tension heading to the ground. 7pm is an early kickoff on a work day in a city that doesn’t eat dinner until most Australians would already be tucked away in bed. People rushed from work to El Monumental but their journey was obstructed by heavy traffic along the Avenida del Libertador, which was ground to a standstill by a row of tourist coaches that seemed to stretch for kilometres. Equally long was the queue to collect tickets, perhaps explained by the fact that sales were handled by Ticketek, who are apparently equally as clueless on both sides of the Pacific.
The police also did their best to confuse the situation with a system of barricades that ringed the stadium, a web of blockades outflanking each other around the streets of Núñez in a system as difficult to explain as it was to navigate. Entrance was also slowed by police confiscating shirts from Colombian fans who didn’t have tickets for the visitors’ section, leaving a pile of yellow camisetas at every checkpoint to accompany mountains of contraband lighters that people forgot to stuff down their socks before being frisked.
The shirtless Colombians could rely on their countrymen in the away end to provide the colour for them, letting off a couple of smoke bombs as the teams entered the field. The locals reserved a warm round of applause for visiting coach José Pékerman, a popular Argentine who guided his nation to the 2006 World Cup quarter finals where they were foiled by hosts Germany on penalties. The spirit of goodwill exposed how completely over-the-top the confiscation of shirts was; thousands of Colombians spilled out of the visitors’ official allocation and sprinkled themselves amongst the locals without incident, despite what turned into a spiteful contest.
Having wedged myself into the popular for the visit of Venezuela in March, I splashed out on a reserved platea ticket for this fixture, keen to secure a decent view of the clash between Conmebol’s two strongest outfits. Collecting my ticket midweek (a sage decision once I saw the interminable wait on match day) and needing to show a passport as ID, the Ticketek lady grinned at my foreign documentation. “Querés ver a Messi,” she grinned. She was right, too, but unfortunately a gammy hammy picked up against Atletico Madrid had sidelined the midget maestro since 12 May. Luckily, the presence of Gonzalo Higuaín, Kun Agüero, Ángel Fabián di María and Monaco-bound Falcao – returning to the ground he called home during his seminal years at River Plate – provided some half-decent attacking firepower in his place.
Those big guns didn’t waste much time getting started in a lively opening to the match. Di María’s jinking runs created plenty of aerial opportunities for Higuaín, and the Colombians weren’t afraid to return serve, planting the ball in the back of the net after 20 minutes only for the linesman’s flag to pour cold water on their celebrations. The man sitting to my left stood to wave aggressively at the away fans before returning to a archaic transistor radio the size of a small brick, crackling out breathless commentary that seemed to roughly translate into “half back passes to centre, back to wing, back to centre – centre holds it, holds it, holds it!”
That Simpsons episode might have been the only contact with the roundball code the Americans in the row behind might have ever had before this match. It’s not unfair to describe their observations as unenlightened, although I did agree with their summation that the termite-ridden benches we were sitting on certainly weren’t designed to cater for long gringo legs. Predictably, the Yanks were particularly fascinated by the characteristically Latino gamesmanship, sarcastically appealing for a foul every time a player theatrically took a tumble.
In the 27th minute their cries became less facetious, when Higuaín cannoned into the legs of Colombian keeper David Ospina. As lanky Argentine stayed on the turf to avoid the referee’s censure, Colombian defender Cristian Zapata kicked the prostrate Higuaín, who quickly hightailed it into his own half while Venezuelan ref Marlon Escalante sent Zapata for an early shower. Higuaín’s game of hide and seek didn’t do him any good, as the arbitro weaved through a maze of protesting blue-and-white jumpers to flash him a red card. The two tarjetas rojas knocked the stuffing out of a promising first half, which ended scoreless.
The second stanza was less than inspiring, as the card-happy referee lost control of a nasty match that featured eight yellow tickets and two dismissals. Down one man at the home of South America’s strongest team (in the absence of Brazil, at least), Los Cafeteros – a nickname paying homage to Colombia’s coffee growers, perhaps Colombia’s second most well-known industry – shut up shop, especially after Lionel Messi entered the fold on the hour mark to the relief of an increasingly agitated gallery. The linesman disallowed two Argentine goals either side of Messi’s introduction – one incorrect, the other not. The game billed as Messi versus Falcao turned into a damp squib; the five-foot-five No.10 was short of a gallop and if his name wasn’t on the team sheet, you wouldn’t have even known Falcao was even out there. Perhaps he was weighed down by Monaco’s millions of Euros, having penned a five-year deal with the moneybags French club last week.
When you consider that the combined wage of both sides’ attacking stars would dwarf most African GDPs, it’s hard to believe the nil-all finish. As Escalante blew full time to put an ugly game out of its misery, a hush befell the stadium until the neighbouring Americans broke the silence. “So what? It’s a tie?” they queried, their furrowed brows conveying a genuine disbelief.
Yep, just a ‘tie’, but a handy point for two countries cantering towards the World Cup, relishing their role as the big fish in a pond made smaller by Brazil’s automatic qualification. Low-key Argentine boss Alejandro Sabella won’t be unhappy with a gritty 0-0 considering profligate defence has been Argentina’s achilles heel in the past, while Colombia enhance their reputation as the meanest defence in the continent (their seven goals conceded is the tidiest record this Conmebol campaign).
And for what it’s worth, the crowd got some late entertainment as consolation, as a kid entered the playing arena (the police must have been too busy needlessly confiscating shirts to bother securing the pitch) and outfoxed a portly security guard in his pursuit. It mightn’t be a Messi goal, but a fat bloke slipping over is pretty close.