Early on Saturday afternoon, small groups of Cololmbian and Argentinian fans milled around the cobbled streets of the city’s picturesque Pelourinho district, taking pictures of the historic buildings, enjoying some samba, and having their arms and legs covered in traditional, white symbols by streetside painters. The hot air hummed with an apprehensive, nervous excitement; both sets of supporters keenly aware of how the outcome of their blockbuster clash could set the tone for their tournament.
The Arena Fonte Nova, one of the stadiums built by Brazil for the 2014 World Cup, is a modern update on a South American classic: a circular concrete bowl with huge grey pillars interspersed with sufficient spaces to give it an airy feel such as that of auditorium or coliseum. On Saturday, the home of Bahia Esporte Clube was host to a significant number of travelling Argentine fans and a much greater number of Colombians. By the end of the night, small groups of locals joined in with the celebrations and songs teasing their great rivals.
Throughout the evening fans mixed happily with each other to create a festival-like atmosphere of bonhomie, it was boisterous yet entirely pleasant and one couldn’t help but feel it would have been a useful education for the few hundred England supporters who make such a name for themselves through their own, entirely contrary behaviour. As always, local supporters performed their role as hosts with arms open, unafraid to participate in the occasion.
The game itself promised much, yet for the first half failed somewhat to live up to it’s expectations. Messi, who wasn’t seen here when the world cup visited five years ago, was the main attraction for many of the ‘neutrals’. An early roar of approval rippled round the stadium in the opening minutes when he produced a delightful touch and turn to evade three Colombians in tight space on his own touchline. That, however, was as good as it got for Argentina in the opening 45 minutes, their world-class front line looking increasingly isolated as the midfield misplaced passes, leaving only a couple of long-range efforts from Paredes to ask something of David Ospina in the Colombian goal. Were it not for the announcement of his name before kick-off, one wouldn’t have noticed De Maria, so insignificant was his contribution to the game.
Messi’s opposite number, James Rodriguez, had a far more comfortable evening, his impressive passes frequently spread possession to the flanks where Colombia’s pace often found Saravia and Tagliafico wanting. This was how the lead came, a beautiful lofted diagonal ball to the left finding Roger Martinez, who smartly drove inside, curling the ball across Armani and into the net on 71 minutes. It was down the left-flank once again where Colombia pressed home their advantage, Duvan Zapata finding Martinez, who fed the overlapping full-back Lerma, his low-ball into the box being finished perfectly by a straining Zapata. Argentina pressed in the late stages without ever really convincing.
Despite the Colombians clinical attacking threat, orchestrated by Rodriguez, this was a game undoubtedly won from the back. Sanchez and Mina consistently repelled the Argentine thrusts forwards and kept Sergio Aguero in their pockets whilst in front of them Wilmar Barrios, the game’s outstanding performer, marshalled the midfield and kept Messi and co from gaining any real foothold with which to manoeuvre forward. A word too for Colombian boss Carlos Queiroz, whose excellent use of his squad had a decisive impact: both the goalscorers and the rapid Lerma were substitutes. With Paraguay and Qatar to come in the group, Colombia will have expectations of topping the group and a decent run until at least the semi-finals of this competition. On the other hand, Scaloni’s side continue to struggle to find their feet and will look ahead to the following two games with an element of trepidation.