Heart of Football

32 Sides to Every Story: Group H – Colombia, Japan, Senegal & Poland

Group H may just be one of the most open, unpredictable groups in the modern World Cup eras, with all four teams having a strong claim to win the group and go home in equal measure. Colombia qualified in an incredibly tight CONMENBOL pool, finishing fourth, only one point ahead of both Peru and Chile, winning seven of 18, drawing six and losing five. Japan won their group in the third round of qualifying, finishing ahead of Saudi Arabia and Australia in a tricky group.

Senegal seemed to top their group with relative ease, although on closer inspection it was a close run thing, involving an annulled and replayed game against South Africa, as well as a string of very late goals. Regardless of circumstance, they finished with 14/18 points to book their place in Russia. Finally, Poland, and their star striker Robert Lewandowski, stormed to top spot in their qualification pool, winning 8/10, with one loss and one draw, a 2-2 away to Kazakhstan and a 4-0 hammering from second placed Denmark.

Japan may not have been featuring, but being there in person to see a World Cup semi-final is not something everyone can say they’ve done. [image: Yuto Shimada]

Group H was settled in one of the most bizarre fashions in World Cup history. After a predictably close group stage in which Colombia and Poland (1st and 4th), were separated by only three points, Japan and Senegal were separated by booking points. Why? Because they both had 4 points. They both had a goal difference of 0. They both had scored four and conceded four. They had drawn 2-2. Japan’s cleaner disciplinary record was genuinely what separated the two and progressed the Japanese into the round of 16.

Colombia recovered from an opening defeat to Japan to win their next two games. Poland, who finished bottom, only won their last game, a match in which Japan spent the final minutes not daring to progress out of their own half, gambling that their superior discipline would see them through. Senegal started the World Cup so promisingly with a win against Poland, however their final day loss to Colombia was too much to overcome.

Robert Lewandowski was the star turn of Group H, but ended up bottom with Poland

For both Colombia and Japan, the round of 16 was the end of the line – though neither were knocked out easily… Japan shocked the world by taking a 2-0 lead against one of the pre-tournament favourites, Belgium. The Red Devils left in late to get back on track, before a 94th minute Nacer Chadli goal on the counter attack broke Japanese hearts, the team being punished for trying to win it late, rather than holding on to the draw and going for penalties.

Senegal fans dwarfing Yuto Shimada, but enjoying each others’ company. [image: Yuto Shimada]

Colombia had less grace and decorum about them. The free flowing, easy on the eye team from 2014 had been replaced by an aggressive, dirty team who took ‘shithousery’ to another level. Despite being outplayed by England for the bulk of the match, Yery Mina scored a 93rd minute equaliser to bring about extra time. After 120 minutes, penalties were needed to separate the sides, with England finally breaking their penalty hoodoo to dump José Pékerman’s side out of the tournament.

I spoke to Eduardo Umaña Forero, Yuto Shimada, Umar Sow and Dominika Łapińska about their experience in Russia that summer.


Eduardo (46)

Games attended:

Colombia 1-2 Japan

Poland 0-3 Colombia

Senegal 0-1 Colombia

Colombia 1-1 (aet) England 

Travelling to Russia:

I went with my wife Alejandra. However, prior to the trip, we organised WhatsApp groups of more than 2000 Colombians who live in different countries and who went to the World Cup in Russia. We created and learned songs to support our soccer team.

How did the nation feel about losing against England? After leading the Group H, Colombia seemed to give up playing an attractive football and, in exchange, it seemed insistent to ensue England at every opportunity. 

There were mixed feelings from the Colombians after losing to England. On the one hand, total happiness to be able to tie the game in the last minute of official time, which gave us hope again, and on the other hand sadness for not being able to win the game in extra time, since defining the game by penalties is exciting, but when it is not your team that qualifies.

Japanese kids, Colombian adults, Russian World Cup. [image: Eduardo Umaña Forero]

The tactical approach of the Colombian team throughout the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the exception of the game against Poland, was different from the one we usually use.

As seen in Brazil 2014, our team is characterised by creating a good game, being collective, having control of the ball and frequently creating goal scoring chances. In Russia 2018, especially in the match against England, we moved away from our way of playing, posing a defensive and shock match, which is not our style of play and therefore it did not work. I believe that the Colombian coaching staff was very cautious due to the rival’s history and it was a mistake.

Tournament highlight: 

Colombia performed admirably, getting so close to a quarter-final appearance. [image: Eduardo Umaña Forero]

The greatest memory of the tournament was the match that our Colombian team played against Poland, in a beautiful city called Kazan. The game, the result and the hospitality of its inhabitants were sensational!

Tell your story from Russia:

Russia 2018 has been the best experience of our lives. A country that received us with great hospitality and joy. Being a part of this wonderful soccer party was rewarding.

What better way to meet thousands of other supporters than in a fan fest? [image: Eduardo Umaña Forero]

I share with you the words that the mayor of Kazan, Ilsur Metshin, said after the game between Colombia and Poland: “What great fans they are! Bright and beautiful, they changed the city in the period of preparation and celebration of the match and then after. Worth a lot, it is a holiday that we will be proud of and tell our grandchildren about. I really wish that we were so young and sing the anthem from our hearts like this. What a great football vacation came to the country, what unforgettable impressions.

Colombia came so close to edging past England, but fell just short on penalties in the Round of 16. [image: Eduardo Umaña Forero]

We learn from those people who flew towards us from the other side of the ocean and gave us emotions! How much they love not only football, but also their homeland, how proud they are of it and the way they share these emotions. I would like us to learn to be together in the same way that the Colombian fans were yesterday


Yuto (32)

Games attended:

Colombia 1-2 Japan

Japan 2-2 Senegal 

Denmark 0-0 France

Japan 0-1 Poland

Belgium 3-2 Japan

Brazil 1-2 Belgium

Croatia 2-1 (aet) England

Belgium 2-0 England

Travelling to Russia:

I went by airplane, by myself. But I met a Japanese friend when I was there.

It may have been a complete dead rubber, but to be in the St. Petersburg Arena for a World Cup game was some experience. [image: Yuto Shimada]

How do you reflect on the tournament? After being placed in a very tough group Japan rode their luck, being the first team ever to progress on the fair play rule. How crazy was this to be involved in? Any luck Japan had then vanished after losing to Belgium so late. 

Kazan Arena saw many of the World Cup’s best games. [image: Yuto Shimada]

I thought “Oh, my god…”, so I was sad when I knew the group. But, as you say, they had a lot of luck and I’m proud they fought well. All Japanese people praised them.

Of course, we were so sad when they lost to Belgium. However, the Belgian team is said to be strong, but they hadn’t won, so I was happy to see a really strong Belgium.

Quite why Дед Мороз and Снегорочка – Russia’s answer to Father Christmas and his helper – were at a World Cup and mingling with Japanese fans is uncertain. [image: Yuto Shimada]

Tournament highlight: 

It’s difficult, I’ve seen a lot of good games. Japan v Columbia and England v Croatia… Both games were miraculous. I think this is the World Cup game. Maybe I cried after the games!

Tell your story from Russia:

I had nothing wrong with Russia. The food is so good, the security was not bad, the Russians were kind and talked to me a lot. For example, when I arrived at the station by late night train and was looking for an inn, a Russian woman told me that I would stay at a cheap price.

It’s fair to say Yuto Shimada enjoyed the nightlife – as did his friends. [image: Yuto Shimada]

I can’t forget having a drink with my family in a room that was too large for one person to stay alone. I also drank a lot of beer with Russian men during public viewing. At the club, I was dancing a lot with people while drinking vodka. The only disappointment was that I couldn’t make a Russian girlfriend!!


Umar. 26. Senegal. 

Games attended:

Poland 1-2 Senegal

Japan 2-2 Senegal 

Senegal 0-1 Colombia

Travelling to Russia:

I was probably the first fan here for the World Cup! I came to Russia one year before the tournament as a student with some friends. I lived in Ekaterinburg, then, during the World Cup, I travelled by train to meet my girlfriend in Moscow for the match between Senegal and Poland.

After Senegal were knocked out, there was heartbreak for Umar Sow. [image: Umar Sow]

I travelled back to Ekaterinburg to watch the game between Senegal and Japan afterwards then went to Samara by car with some Russian and Mexican fans.

How frustrating was it to be eliminated on the fair play rule? If you had progressed instead of Japan, do you think you could have beaten Belgium?

It was absolutely a very difficult game. I felt so frustrated that we lost our best match of the competition against Colombia – we played very well, we were just unlucky. I am sure that we had a chance against Belgium.

Tournament highlight: 

I loved travelling to Russia against different fans. I loved that moment when we won against Poland and there was only a few Senegalese fans in the stadium between so many Polish fans, it was my best moment.

How many nationalities can you spot in this photo? [image: Umar Sow]

Tell your story from Russia:

I have a lot stories, but one beats all the rest. I met my girlfriend (Russian) during the World Cup and we are still together years later. We had met before a game and I had to get her Instagram so that we could keep in touch. After our elimination I did feel sad of course for being out the tournament, but I had met a beautiful girl, so I couldn’t be too sad! 

Umar Sow with a collection of compatriots in Moscow. [image: Umar Sow]

We spent some time together in Samara then travelled to Ekaterinburg together to watch a match in a fanzone. This is why the 2018 World Cup is by far and away the best moment of my life. Love is something spontaneous. She is Russian but came to support Senegal because she loves Africa, and I think it is just my destiny.


Dominika (18) 

Games attended:

Poland 0-3 Colombia

Japan 0-1 Poland

Travelling to Russia:

I travelled with my dad and some of his friends. We drove from Poland to Russia for about 30 hours then stayed with some friends in a flat for the duration of our trip.

Dominika Łapińska’s nation would see the back of the tournament after the group stage. [image: Dominika Łapińska]

Poland were in a tough group but with no traditional big side (like Brazil, Germany). With players like Lewandowski, how far did you think Poland could go, and how disappointing was it to finish last?

We had booked the time off until the final. We were focused on at least reaching the last eight. To finish last in our group was such a bitter disappointment.

All nationalities, ages and sizes of fans were represented at the World Cup. [image: Dominika Łapińska]

Tournament highlight: 

Poland versus Colombia. It was the first World Cup game that I watched in a stadium and it was just a wonderful football atmosphere. Even though we lost, this will always be special to me.

Tell your story from Russia:

This was my first time visiting Russia and we saw a lot, the country was beautiful and the stadiums had such an atmosphere. I have very fond memories of the match against Colombia. Colombian fans, both before and after the game, created a nice atmosphere.

I met many interesting people with whom I have a whole photo gallery. We also exchanged scarves, and after the game we spent time together in bars. The only disappointment was that we lost the match!

Thank you to Eduardo, Yuto, Umar and Dominika for their contributions to this article. If you enjoyed this then, I’m sorry to say, this series is now finished!

Thanks to all the participants, both those who were published and those who weren’t, but gave me their time. Thanks to my girlfriend, Jenna, for listening to my rants about this series and her support, despite her general disdain for sports. Thanks to the Heart of Football team for their helps and advice, particularly Katie for her Instagram work, Simon for coming in clutch with the images and of course, the main man, Andrew, for working his magic and turning my word document into a bona-fide article.

Most of all, thank you so very much to every single person who has taken the time to read this, whether you’re an avid reader or a one-time browser. This series has been wild to research, write and put together and every time a person reads, likes and shares this series it genuinely makes all the months of work that I put into this feel so justified.

Please do follow Heart of Football across our social media channels and stay tuned, I may just have another World Cup series in me…! 

Catch the previous installments in the series here:


Group A

Group B

Group C

Group D

Group E

Group F

Group H

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