For a tournament that has arguably been the most entertaining World Cup in recent memory, this should be a time of celebration.
Four international heavy weights — Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina — compose the semifinalists. Together they’ve already made 18 appearances in the final, and 30 appearances at this stage in total if you include this year’s tournament. A mind-boggling ten world championships have been hoisted between them, twice as many as the 2010 edition offered. To me at least, we haven’t seen a final foursome this sexy since Italia ’90.
But because the host nation have been robbed of their greatest talent, the dynamic Neymar Junior, it feels as if a bit of the air has been let out of the closing stages of this World Cup’s balloon.
Without a doubt, Neymar’s loss is a tragedy as far as the tournament is concerned. It’s a particularly devastating absence for Brazil given the lack of bite the rest of their attack has offered so far. And the manner in which it occurred was wholeheartedly brutal; just how Juan Zuñiga’s flying knee to the back went unpunished is a complete a head scratcher.
But I want to make sure of something important here: if Brazil crash out in the semis or don’t manage to lift the Cup on Sunday, don’t go blaming the entire failure on Colombia’s Zuñiga.
Sure, he’s certainly directly responsible for the foul. But there are plenty of others who deserve fingers pointed at them too should that result come to fruition.
The first finger can be pointed squarely at referee Carlos Velasco Carballo for allowing the Brazil-Colombia match to digress to that sort of barbarism. We went 31 fouls into the match before the first card was pulled by the Spanish official. And that card wasn’t even given for a foul, but rather for a petulant bit of unsporting behavior. A yellow or two in the opening quarter of an hour would have gone a long way to settling things before it escalated to that level. By not doling out any stiffer punishments, he effectively told the players they had a free pass to hack in an ever increasingly violent manner.
That said, I don’t want to hang Velasco Carballo out to try dry all by himself. Sharing in his blame should also be everyone’s favorite punching bag, FIFA. The governing body undoubtedly told their referees to keep their cards in their pockets as much as possible. Part of their reasoning for such a directive was to aid with the flow of the matches. We’re all guilty of yelling at referees to “let the teams play”, and play they did.
However the main reason FIFA have asked for restraint is a bit more greedy than that: to prevent star players from being banned from such important matches. Their motivations for that are many: adding to the spectacle of the event being one, but also to appease sponsors. And in a cruel twist of irony, FIFA’s strategy backfired tremendously. A different approach — like increasing the limit of two yellows to three before suspending a player, perhaps — might yield the desired results without leaving their prized assets so exposed.
Last but not least, should Brazil fail to win either matches, let’s be sure to point at least one finger at the Seleçao themselves.
Why exactly should we blame Neymar’s injury on his own team? Because their own tactics helped to escalate the game to the point where that foul became a possibility. The Brazilians were whistled for a startling 31 fouls that match, six of which aimed at Colmbia’s own star man, James Rodríguez. And many, many more went unpunished. On at least two occasions I saw Ramires and Paulinho kick out at James away from the play. And while Colombia themselves committed 24 fouls, you can explain at least some of them as retribution for the treatment of their biggest threat.
Also be sure not to forget that their captain and primary defensive organizer, Thiago Silva, got himself suspended for the petulant unsportsmanlike conduct mentioned above. Without a doubt, the coupled loss of those two players will be a huge blow to the belief of the Brazilian side.
It’s not that I don’t think that Brazil can overcome Neymar’s loss, and for that matter Thiago Silva’s too. They have world-class players waiting in the wings behind them in the likes of Willian, Bernard and Dante. It’s just the psychological blow of being deprived of their two most important players will be a massive one to overcome.
But should the hosts fall, the narrative could very well be twisted. Zuñiga won’t be the only one to blame. Along with a few others, Brazil helped to make their bed… and I’m going to make sure they lay in it too.