RIO DE JANEIRO — A Colombian defender named Juan Camilo Zúñiga ended the World Cup for the Brazilian star striker Neymar on Friday with a nasty knee into Neymar’s back that fractured one of his vertebrae. It was an ugly play and a bad foul. It deserved, at least, a yellow card.
Yet within any game, there is always a road map to every flash point. The beauty of soccer’s continuous flow is that one thing leads to another (and another and another), and that makes it possible to trace a path to a game’s most memorable moment. In a game like Friday’s, doing so makes it easier to see where things went wrong.
So what happened to Neymar? How did the face of this tournament end up in a hospital? Brazilian fans will not like to hear it, but while Zúñiga was directly responsible for causing Neymar’s injury, Neymar’s teammates — specifically Fernandinho, though there were others — as well as the referee, Carlos Velasco Carballo, deserve their share of the blame, too. They did not commit the crime, but they contributed to an environment of lawlessness that led to Neymar’s being battered.
If that sounds harsh, consider that Brazil’s coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, made a point of saying before the game that there was no historical rivalry between Brazil and Colombia and that games between the teams were “friendly matches.” Thiago Silva, the captain, said that playing against Colombia’s considerable skill players would make for a cleaner, more fluid game.
Yet from the first minute it appeared that Brazil was determined to play the game cynically, tripping and pushing and kicking at Colombia’s players, especially James Rodríguez, the team’s wunderkind scorer. Colombia, on the other hand, seemed almost deferential at first. When Neymar went off on a spirited run six minutes into the game, the Colombian defenders did little to try to knock him off stride, let alone scythe him to the ground as previous opponents had done. He ran freely.
When Rodríguez went to claim the ball a few minutes later, however, Brazil’s Óscar ran right into Rodríguez’s back as if to make clear to him that no space on the Fortaleza field would be a safe space. Rodríguez’s teammates were understandably upset, but there was no retaliation — the feeling of violence in the game, especially early on, came almost exclusively from Brazil.
Two minutes after Óscar’s foul, Marcelo blasted the Colombian midfielder Juan Cuadrado. Three minutes after that, Fernandinho, a midfielder who often plays with an edge, slammed into Rodríguez again. Velasco Carballo blew his whistle and called a foul but did not show Fernandinho a yellow card.
This quickly became a recurrent theme. Soccer referees will often show yellow cards to players for “persistent infringement” of the rules, a phrase that generally means committing three or four serious fouls. Fernandinho was called for four fouls in just the first half of the game, three of them significant hacks at Rodríguez. But Velasco Carballo gave him no penalty.
This was not a new role for Fernandinho. He committed six fouls in Brazil’s previous game (two more than the number of passes he completed), a difficult victory over Chile in a shootout. Of course, as Scolari noted, that game was between heated rivals. Colombia and Brazil were supposed to be more copacetic.
Despite that, the temperature of the game continued to rise in the second half, and again, it was Brazil doing most of the stoking. David Luiz blatantly tripped Cuadrado in the first minute after intermission (Velasco Carballo missed it). Fernandinho slyly pushed Adrián Ramos into the sign boards behind the end line as the two chased a ball that was undoubtedly going out of play anyway.
In all, Brazil committed nine of the first 11 fouls in the second half, hacking and pounding on the Colombians despite already holding a 1-0 lead. It was not hard to predict that at some point, Brazil’s top star, Neymar, would become a target.
It was in the 57th minute, though, when the match began to boil over. The Colombians had continued to mostly sit back and take the punishment, but they were clearly infuriated when Silva crushed Ramos from behind as he went toward a ball. Velasco Carballo, again, declined to whistle a foul. The Colombians’ ire was raised even more 10 minutes later when the referee showed a yellow card to Rodríguez — who was apoplectic at the decision — for an innocuous trip that was, as Rodríguez vociferously pointed out with multiple hand gestures, a first offense compared with Fernandinho’s harrying.
“I think the referee influenced the game a lot,” Rodríguez said afterward.
He was being kind. Velasco Carballo’s role in the ugliness cannot be minimized. A Spaniard, he is known as a high-level official, but it seemed clear that he was determined to avoid using cards to control the players. That decision backfired, particularly as it related to Fernandinho; instead of giving the players a comfort level to play more freely early on, his lenience served as an elastic band on the game, encouraging the players, especially the Brazilians, to try to see just how much contact they could get away with on Rodríguez without being punished.
It was a poor miscalculation from Velasco Carballo, and one he compounded by neglecting to adjust as the game progressed. His culpability is impossible to ignore.
Yet neither is that of the Brazilians who, emboldened, continued to chop. The Colombians took a few shots in return, though nothing compared with, say, Chile or earlier Brazil opponents, who clearly had a plan to harass Neymar. By the time the game reached its closing moments, the Colombians — who saw Brazil commit 31 of the tournament-high 54 fouls in the game — surely felt they were owed the proverbial pound of flesh.
They got it, then, with Zúñiga’s challenge on Neymar, though it is hard to believe Zúñiga was looking to cause the sort of damage he inflicted. Taking a whack at an attacking player who is awaiting a bouncing or floating ball is standard fare: Rodríguez was hit high, low and in between multiple times on Friday. In the 87th minute, the ball came near, Zúñiga put his knee into Neymar’s back and Neymar crumpled, his World Cup suddenly over.
It was unfortunate and sad, and afterward, Scolari and other Brazilian officials were incensed. Much of their frustration was directed at Zúñiga, with the rest being sent toward the referee.
“Everybody knew that Neymar would be hunted,” Scolari said. “It’s been happening in the last three matches, and we had been talking about it. But nobody listens to us.”
Those emotions were understandable. But if Scolari was truly being honest with himself, he must look inward, too. Brazil has not showcased jogo bonito here, has not displayed the “beautiful game” that it is known for playing. It has played ugly and rugged and rough.
That is Scolari’s choice. And on Friday it was Scolari’s players — Neymar’s teammates — who created the environment that ultimately sent Brazil’s superstar home.
i feel really bad for Neymar, he didn't deserve this, but accurate article is accurate