The 2018 FIFA World Cup could have started worse for Colombia, surprising quarterfinalists four years ago in Brazil.
Carlos Sanchez's handball just three minutes into the match, resulting in a straight red card, doomed the 10-men Los Cafeteros in a 2-1 loss to Japan in Group H play on Tuesday morning from Morodovia Arena in Saransk.
A penalty conversion from Shinji Kagawa following the Sanchez handball and a 73rd-minute header from Yuya Osako proved enough to hold off the Colombians and provide Japan with an unlikely opening three points.
Colombia began the day without its best player in forward James Rodriguez, the Real Madrid man on loan to Bayern Munich starting the match on the bench due to fitness issues.
In an ideal situation, Radamel Falcao — the 32-year-old striker appearing in his first World Cup — would have been more than enough for Colombia against a weaker opponent like Japan considering the veteran is playing some of the best soccer of his career.
But things went horribly awry when an early chance gave Japan a clear look at goal, but a shot from just outside the box clanged off the outstretched arm of Sanchez, awarding Japan with a penalty and cutting Colombia down to 10 men. It was the second-fastest red card in World Cup history and the first time ever that a Colombian player was sent off in World Cup play.
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Shinji Kagawa, the former Manchester United man now playing for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, coolly stepped up and converted his penalty to put the Blue Samurai in front:
Kagawa slots home the penalty to give Japan the early lead after Carlos Sanchez's handball in the box! pic.twitter.com/Y9HXuLvGOV— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 19, 2018
Colombia didn't let its disadvantage sway its tactics. Los Cafeteros continued to push up the field and put pressure on the Japanese defense. It paid dividends in the 39th minute when Juan Quintero slid a free kick under the Japanese wall and just inside the near post to level things up:
Cheeky free kick from Quintero!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 19, 2018
The Colombian hits it under the wall and sneaks it into the near post to equalize vs Japan. pic.twitter.com/Q3qm22FYs0
With the full three points not out of the question, Colombia brought on the fatigued James in the 59th minute in an attempt to provide even more of a boost.
However, Japan would find the go-ahead goal 17 minutes from time when Osako sent a header off a corner off the post and in.
It's just the second time in six World Cup appearances that Japan has won its opening match while Colombia attempts to regroup in a difficult group that includes Poland, ranked eighth in the world, and the Sadio Mane-led Senegal.