Referees to blame for shocking injury

Referees to blame for shocking injury
Brazil's Neymar grimaces as he lies on the ground injured after a challenge by Colombia's Zuniga during their 2014 World Cup quarter-finals at the Castelao arena in Fortaleza.

The aftermath to one of the most anticipated matches of this World Cup is of Neymar, potentially its star attraction, being wheeled on a stretcher through a hospital corridor. He is clutching an oxygen mask to his face, trying to ease the pain in his back.

Typical of the media intrusion in Brazil, there are TV camera crews pursuing the trolley through the hospital until, finally, the door to the examination room is slammed shut.

Over in the stadium at Fortaleza, Luiz Felipe Scolari tells the media that it looks bad. Brazil's team doctor then confirms that there is a broken vertebra. Neymar's World Cup is over.

The violence that put him out of the tournament went unpunished, like many a lamentable foul tolerated by woefully neglectful referees.

No red card, not even a yellow was handed to Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga for that aggression in the 87th minute.

The defender had been committing reckless fouls all night long. So too had Fernandinho and Paulinho against Colombia's star man, James Rodriguez.

There were body checks, hacks, dangerously high boots at head height. And there was that totally avoidable assault from behind on Neymar, with Zuniga's knee slamming into the spine.

Had you seen the Germany-France match a few hours earlier, you might have wondered if there was an armistice on physical confrontation. France went meekly out of the tournament, Germany coasted to their fourth consecutive World Cup semi-final.

The encounter in the Maracana was so passive, one wondered whether it was staged as an advertisement for Mogadon.

Brazil-Colombia was the opposite extreme. Fifty-four fouls called by the referee, 31 of them in favour of Colombia. However, the Spanish arbiter, Carlos Velasco Carballo, failed abjectly to show he meant business.

His refereeing was nothing like that we see every week during the Spanish league season where, more than England, Italy or Germany, the match officials crack down hard on malicious fouls.

Was Carballo following Fifa diktat? Are we seeing at this tournament the same kind of leniency, of abdication of refereeing responsibility, that the English policeman Howard Webb exhibited in the last World Cup final in South Africa?

I suspect we are. I believe that Fifa wants a clean image for its sport, and will throw at us the low incidence of red and yellow cards once this Cup is over.

Massimo Busacca, the Fifa referees' chief, keeps a low profile and doesn't answer to the press over the standards of his chosen officials.

Brazil versus Colombia was a match played in a foul spirit. Colombia had been arguably the most fluent attacking side of the tournament up to Friday, and Rodriguez was up there with Neymar and Messi as the most creative and most potent match winners on the field.

Neymar was caught by a Chilean boot around the knee in Brazil's previous game. And Scolari had said darkly that he was fed up with doing things nicely - which, given his history as a club coach, suggested less jogo bonito and more physicality from here on.

Win-at-all-costs is the threat to the open, at times almost negligent football which has piled up so many goals in the group stage.

We have lapped them up, of course, and largely ignored the naivete of defences that at times asked forwards to help themselves.

Not any more. Germany clamped down on a French side that, without Franck Ribery, lacked the flair or the devilment to take Die Mannschaft on.

One goal, from defender Mats Hummels pushing the young French centre-back Raphael Varane out of his way to head a high free kick, was enough. After that, the Germans closed shop, and sent us all to sleep.

All that matters, said Germany's skipper Philipp Lahm, is that we are through.

Through to meet a Brazil side that have lost their most gifted player, Neymar, to common assault. And a Brazil that also will miss - badly - their defensive kingpin, Thiago Silva.

A yellow card for Silva, for nothing like the aggression that was going unpunished all around him, rules him out of the semi-final. Lucky Germany. But the real sadness is that Rodriguez was not allowed to play and will thrill us no more in this tournament.

And that Neymar, a young man with so much pressure and so capable of giving pleasure, has apparently been bludgeoned out of the World Cup.

The crude barge into his back was brutal and cowardly. It was by no means Zuniga's first violent foul, but at best it was a rush of blood from a player (one of at least four on this field) who was probably over-hyped by the extreme atmosphere around the game.

That is no excuse for putting a fellow professional out of the game. But the referee was either blind, or constrained by orders, not to have put a stop to the wild, excessive, unacceptable, ugly, and dangerous actions on both sides.

Neymar was damaged three minutes from the end of normal time. A multitude of sins had been tolerated before that.

I would lay a bet that we see a reaction the other way, an early red card in one of the remaining matches, because that is Fifa.

It responds by knee jerk.

This article was first published on July 6, 2014.
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