RIO DE JANEIRO — “I kept getting tripped up and kicked to pieces ...,” said Brazil’s superstar player, “and the referee did nothing to protect me or my teammates from these rough-house tactics.”
Neymar, describing how he was battered at this World Cup and is now out after a Colombian opponent fractured his back? No, this was Pele, recalling opponents’ vicious fouls that hobbled him at the 1966 tournament, part of what prompted a (later rescinded) vow from the king of futebol never to play in the World Cup again.
In short, the warning signs that Neymar was going to be targeted, that rival players without his genius would use force to stop him because they don’t have his skills, were decades old. They were there for all to see in Brazil — except, clearly, for referees and FIFA officials who are as guilty as Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuniga for Neymar’s ruined World Cup. They did too little to protect the 22-year-old from football’s brutes, the cynical masters of the dark art of kicking rivals black, blue and out.
And now it’s too late. Time will mend Neymar’s fractured third vertebra. But it will never be able to give back the one chance he had to win the World Cup on home soil. He will have retired whenever football’s showcase tournament next visits these shores. That wound can never be healed.
Zuniga’s post-match explanation — “I didn’t mean to hurt him” — was as worthless as Brazil’s currency in the days of hyperinflation. Zuniga may not have intended to break a bone. But any time anyone takes a running jump at the small of someone’s back with their knee raised like a battering ram, physical damage is likely, predictable and so also avoidable.
At best, Zuniga was reckless. We would call police and personal injury lawyers if someone charged us like this on the street, sending us to hospital. In football, Zuniga’s lack of care toward another human being didn’t even earn him a caution.
FIFA and the Brazilian government needed so badly for the football to be brilliant at this World Cup. And it has been, partly because FIFA referees are being lenient with fouls, not handing out as many cautions and red cards as they should and letting play run on. That is what Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo did when Zuniga ended Neymar’s World Cup, leaving him face down in agony on the pitch.
But what Carballo didn’t do is as much of a concern. He blew for 54 fouls but handed out just four yellow cards, two to Brazilians and two to Colombians. In short, he saw ugly play all around him but didn’t do enough to stop it.
That is being repeated across this World Cup. There was no caution for Belgium players who hacked in succession at Lionel Messi’s legs as he made a first-half run for goal in Saturday’s quarterfinal. The slow-motion was hypnotic, revolting, showing boots aiming not for the ball but for the calves, shins and ankles of the four-time world player of the year.
The hatchet-men are so good, trained even, at hiding their destructive intent. They leave seemingly innocent legs trailing like trip-wire. When they could land on grass, they instead come down on opponents’ ankles and feet, fragile bones vulnerable in today’s ultra-light shoes.
They tag-team, taking turns to foul particularly gifted players to lessen the risks of a referee’s card for repeat offending. They pretend to look elsewhere when they thunder into a collision. When he flattened Neymar, Zuniga was looking up at a ball he was never going to get, because it was falling for the Brazilian in his path.
And don’t fall for the myth that Brazil players are above such cynicism. They targeted Neymar’s opposite number for Colombia, James Rodriguez. Watching two 22-year-olds being bullied was not pleasant.
FIFA statistics counted 35 tackles on Neymar at this World Cup. Just one player so far got more, Chile’s Alexis Sanchez, with 36. FIFA’s tallies also show Neymar was one of the most fouled players. That is to be expected given that he runs at opponents and, as an attacker, is at the heart of the fray.
But unexpected and alarming is why referees are being more lenient than they have been for decades. According to FIFA, they have shown an average of fewer than three yellow cards per game, a rate lower than at any World Cup since Mexico in 1986.
“The bar for yellow cards has been set much too high,” retired Swiss referee Urs Meier, who officiated at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, wrote Saturday for the website of German weekly Focus.
“An awful lot is being tolerated,” he added. “No one should be surprised that people are injured.”
But with FIFA’s referees curbing their interventions, games have been end-to-end and goals have rained in. FIFA President Sepp Blatter and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, both eyeing re-election, are delivering World Cup bread and circus. The pulsating football has, for now, largely pushed aside bothersome questions about spending billions on stadiums and suspected corruption.
Even without Neymar, the show must go on.
FRANCE NEEDS TO BUILD ON WORLD CUP SUCCESS
RIO DE JANEIRO — With no competitive games for two years, France coach Didier Deschamps may struggle to gauge just how much progress has been made by his young team after its run to the World Cup quarterfinals in Brazil.
The one certainty as his country prepares to host the European Championship in 2016 is that his players will have the home fans behind them.
After Friday’s 1-0 loss to Germany, France leaves the World Cup proud to have improved its image back home and confident it has enough potential to challenge for titles in the years to come.
Although its shortcomings were exposed on Friday, when Les Bleus lacked the confidence needed to trouble Joachim Loew’s experienced side, spirits remain high after some eye-catching performances that hint at a bright future.
“My players answered the call,” Deschamps said after the match. “We’re in our rightful place, even though there wasn’t an enormous difference between the teams.”
France could not deal with the expectations created by its bright start to the tournament, and is still unable to dictate a game against a reputed opponent. This was already evident in qualifying, when it lost 1-0 at home to Spain and failed to show much initiative in that match. What France has in technique and teamwork, it lacks in daring.
France’s World Cup was played out on two fronts, with matters off the pitch also taking on rather too much importance.
The damage from the last World Cup four years ago — when the team shamed a nation by going on strike — has been fully repaired and the notoriously difficult French fans have been won over again.
“Thanks to everyone for the support you’ve shown us throughout the World Cup,” center half Raphael Varane said.
ARGENTINE HOOLIGAN LEADER DETAINED AT WORLD CUP
RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s Justice Ministry says police have detained the alleged leader of Argentina’s infamous football hooligans inside a World Cup stadium.
The ministry says Pablo Alvarez was taken into custody Saturday at the Brasilia stadium where Argentina beat Belgium 1-0 in the quarterfinals.
A ministry statement says Alvarez will be deported after federal police, and Argentine police working with them in Brazil, have finished taking statements from him.
Brazilian authorities have taken precautions to halt known hooligans from entering Brazil for the World Cup, and are deporting those who make it inside the country.
Earlier in the tournament, two suspected members of Argentina’s hooligan gangs — known in Spanish as “Barras Bravas” — were deported after being detained inside the Mineirao stadium where Argentina beat Iran 1-0.
BRAZIL TEAM SPOKESMAN GETS 4-MATCH BAN FROM DUTY
RIO DE JANEIRO — FIFA says it has suspended Brazil’s team spokesman from matchday duty for the rest of the World Cup after he clashed with a Chile player.
Rodrigo Paiva shoved Chile substitute Mauricio Pinilla as the teams left the pitch at halftime of a second-round match.
Paiva denied throwing punches during the incident in Belo Horizonte on June 28, and accused Chile’s team of “deplorable conduct.”
FIFA’s disciplinary panel imposed a four-match ban and fined Paiva 10,000 Swiss francs ($11,180).
FIFA says Paiva already served the first part of the ban at Brazil’s 2-1 win over Colombia on Friday.
He cannot work at Brazil’s semifinal against Germany in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday, and the subsequent final or third-place match.
FIFA says the fourth match sanction is deferred for a two-year probationary period.
LOST GAME MARKS HAZARD’S WORLD CUP
BRASILIA, Brazil — When Belgium needed a final push to stay in the World Cup, off went Eden Hazard — off to the bench that is. The player touted to become one of the defining figures in the tournament never was a match for Argentina’s Lionel Messi in Saturday’s quarterfinal match, and never an inspiring leader to his team.
While Messi left the pitch his fists shaking in celebration and encouraging the tens of thousands of Argentina fans after the 1-0 win, Hazard stood with hands to his side, forlorn and alone. When the two players were supposed to be in a league all of their own on Saturday, there was simply no comparison.
Substituted in the closing stages of the match, when Belgium usually reaches its creative peak against tiring defenses, Hazard’s exit showed that even his staunchest supporter, coach Marc Wilmots, had finally given up hope.
“We were unlucky. In the final 15 meters it was tough to find someone. There was not enough movement,” Hazard said. However, many thought Hazard would be enough of a threat to draw defenders away from the Belgium forwards — and so give his teammates that chance to move more freely.
Then again, the Chelsea playmaker had rarely showed any positive emotions during the tournament and four victories for Belgium.
On Saturday, his most remarkable move was a high tackle over the ball, with his studs showing, that clattered onto the shin of Lucas Biglia. He was lucky to escape with only a yellow card.
MARCELO STAYS IN CAMP DESPITE GRANDFATHER’S DEATH
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — The Brazilian football confederation says left back Marcelo’s grandfather has died, but that the player will remain with the Brazil team at its World Cup training camp.
The confederation said Pedro Vieira da Silva died early Saturday in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 78. The death came a few hours after Brazil beat Colombia 2-1 in the quarterfinals in Fortaleza.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari gave Marcelo permission to return to Rio de Janeiro to be with his family, but the player said he preferred to mourn alongside his teammates.
The Real Madrid defender has said in the past that his grandfather was his greatest supporter in football since he was a kid.
The news came just after Neymar was ruled out of the World cup with a back injury.