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 sidelined after a Colombian opponent fractured his back?
No, this was Pele, recalling vicious fouls that hobbled him at the 1966 tournament.
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 chance he had to win the World Cup on home soil.
Zuniga’s postmatch explanation – “I didn’t mean to hurt him” – was as worthless as Brazil’s currency in the days of hyperinflation. 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.
FIFA and the Brazilian government needed so badly for the soccer to be brilliant at this World Cup. And it has been, partly because 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 left Neymar 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. 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 soccer has, for now, largely pushed aside bothersome questions about spending billions on stadiums and suspected corruption.
Even without Neymar, the show must go on.