Neymar’s fractured vertebra had a special significance for me, his rise to greatness coincided with my experiences in Brazil. In my first visit to the country, I watched his debut and his first goal for Santos. I kept up with him regularly, I watched him week in, week out along with his equally promising midfield supply line Paulo Henrique Ganso. I saw him develop into a lethal forward and a mature adult. When I took the leap and moved here in the beginning of 2011, Neymar took his own leap, leading Santos to the Copa Libertadores trophy. Most of my journalistic work since then was trying to convince Europeans that he is, in fact, destined to be the best player in the world. He’s also exactly two months my junior, which should make no difference at all, but in my years of obsession over football he was the first promising talent to come along who was actually younger than me.
When the news filtered through that Neymar would miss Brazil’s last two matches of the World Cup, it really got to me. No one wants to see the tournament’s stars missing matches through injury, everyone loses in this situation, not just Brazil.
Unfortunately, instead of respecting and supporting Neymar, who is obviously distraught to be missing Brazil’s decisive semi-final tomorrow and whatever game comes after it, the world seems to have been taken over by a tidal wave of hysteria, coming at us from multiple angles.
First of all, the reaction in Brazil to Camilo Zúñiga’s foul on Neymar was bitter, exaggerated and unfair. “Put him in a cage!” suggested one pundit on Brazilian television later that evening, “Zúñiga should be banned from football for life!” exclaimed another. Since Friday afternoon, I have seldom heard Zúñiga’s name uttered in public, he is referred to as “that animal”. On social media, the Colombian full-back (as well as his mother and daughter) has received all kinds of vile abuse and threats, often with racist language and sentiments.
At the same time, I cannot stomach headlines written in the English-speaking press that claim Neymar’s injury was “karma”, or that Brazil “deserved” to lose him or brought it on themselves in any way. They seem, in my opinion, to be off the mark, in bad taste and childish, with arguments tantamount to “well, Brazil started it!”
The sentiment behind this reporting also confuses me. The popular Brazilian sports press is a reactionary bunch at the best of times, and many here feel that without Neymar they have lost their chance of winning the tournament, so a bit of exaggeration and outpouring of emotion is to be expected. But what justification is there for the New York Times to make their own reactionary leap and say that Brazil deserve to lose their star player?
I believe that, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Neymar’s injury was not “karma”, neither was it brazen assault.
Firstly, for people to deny Brazil’s rough tactics seems extremely silly. I have watched the match nearly three times now and their pursuit of Colombia’s technical and dangerous players becomes clearer every time. After 12 minutes, Fernandinho clatters Juan Cuadrado and then James Rodríguez in quick succession. Both of them were nasty fouls, typical of a player trying to intimidate his opponents. Considering it was early in the match, perhaps neither foul deserved a yellow card, but together, one after the other, I would certainly think about cautioning the player if I were the referee.
Fernandinho cuts Rodríguez down again ten minutes later, clatters him once more another ten minutes afterwards and brings him down again only one minute after. All of these incidents looked calculated to me, sending a message to the young playmaker. Despite these five hefty fouls, Fernandinho escaped punishment, setting a precedent for the rest of the players on the field.
Colombia ended up committing more fouls in the first half, but that is to be expected considering Brazil had the vast majority of possession. Most of the fouls from Pékerman’s side seemed to be clumsy and mistimed, although one body-check from Carlos Sánchez on Neymar did seem to be in the same vein as Fernandinho’s robust challenges on Rodríguez.
Zúñiga, the soon-to-be public enemy number one, committed two fouls in the first half. His first was a trip on Neymar outside of the penalty area (nothing malicious or cynical, good skill by Neymar, if anything) and his second was a high tackle on Hulk. The latter was a dangerous foul which caught Hulk on his knee and was certainly worthy of a yellow card. Had the caution been applied, the injury-causing foul on Neymar is unlikely to have taken place. As it was, the first half ended with no cards.
Hunted in the centre, James Rodríguez started to drift to the flanks and between the lines to try and find pockets of space to play in. On the left flank, he suffered two early second-half fouls from Maicon. The first did not seem like much, but in the second Maicon visibly rakes his studs down Rodríguez’s Achilles tendon.
Juan Cuadrado, Colombia’s other frustrated attacker, picked up two consecutive fouls from Marcelo midway through the half. He approaches the referee asking for a card and is seen asking “how many?” as in how many more fouls are needed for a yellow card to appear. Two minutes later, he clatters Neymar near his own penalty box. Again, no card is shown.
The yellow cards did eventually come and they were distributed in a strange manner. Thiago Silva rightly received a caution for blocking the goalkeeper as he had possession, and James Rodríguez receives a ludicrous booking for his first foul, a sliding tackle on Hulk. I agree with the awarding of the foul, but considering the context of the other incidents that escaped punishment and the treatment Rodríguez himself had received, the yellow card was a ridiculous decision.
Elsewhere, Mário Yepes was booked for dissent and Júlio César was booked for Colombia’s penalty kick.
The only other significant foul in the match was Zuniga’s on Neymar, causing the Brazilian to fracture his third vertebra. It was clumsy and dangerous, like his foul on Hulk in the first half, but I did not see the pure malice that most of Brazil saw. Along with two of Fernandinho’s in the first half and Zuniga’s earlier foul on Hulk, this was one of the game’s rougher and more dangerous incidents, all four worthy of yellow cards. An aggressive match such as this holds these risks for more technical and therefore targeted players. Perhaps the speed Zuniga reached before making contact was the decisive factor in causing Neymar’s injury, but Fernandinho could just as easily have broken Rodriguez’s ribs in the first 15 minutes.
After the game I was surprised by the immediate reaction from the international media, calling the match a “bloodbath” and other similar descriptions. There were certainly a huge number of fouls which stifled the flow of the match, as well as a few nasty incidents, but nothing like the 90-minute brawl that was reported. It was no bloodbath, just a poorly controlled game of football between one side that set a tone of aggressive play and another that gave as good as they got.
There is no doubt that Luiz Felipe Scolari set his Brazil team out to get in Colombia’s faces and for Fernandinho to target James Rodríguez. This type of fouling, which Felipão calls “tactical fouls”, are used as a resource by his sides, an aspect of the game to be used to his advantage. This perhaps goes some way towards explaining Felipão’s nonchalant public reaction to Neymar’s injury. The evening of the match, he suggested an injury such as this to Neymar was “a matter of time” and earlier today he refused to criticise the referee for not punishing Zúñiga. He is aware that Neymar is targeted by opposition players, as it is a tactic he uses himself, even against Neymar. When he was head coach at Palmeiras, Felipão’s tactics against Santos always involved setting one player to shadow Neymar and intimidate him.
But that is not to say this Brazil side can be compared to Wimbledon of the late 1980s, Oswaldo Zubeldia’s Estudiantes from the 1960s or even the Netherlands side from the last World Cup in 2010. They are heavy-handed, but still skilful and often pleasant to watch.
However, it is a shame the Seleção would have “tactical fouling” as any part of their match strategy, but it has been that way for a long time. The attractive side of the 1982 World Cup dazzled the world but were eliminated early, and failures in 1986 and 1990 led to a change in mentality. Futebol-arte (art football) became futebol de resultados (results football), spearheaded by Carlos Alberto Parreira’s less-inspiring (there’s an understatement) side that won the 1994 World Cup. The fact is that most Brazilians, genuine football fans or no, put winning above all else. The 1982 side is still revered and admired here, but always with that caveat. Truly idolised teams are those who won trophies. (For more on this shift, read chapter J for Jogo Bonito of A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football, written by myself and Mauricio Savarese.)
Neymar’s injury has been treated like the death of a national hero. Footage of him being put into a helicopter to take him home to Guarujá was reminiscent of that of Ayrton Senna’s body being transported from the airplane to the funeral home. Given that, it is perhaps no surprise that the Brazilian public appear to be passing through the classic five stages of grief for Neymar’s World Cup final hopes.
First, denial. After the injury there was some worry about Neymar, but the thought that he could miss the semi-final, never mind more matches, did not seem to cross anyone’s mind. Second, anger. The outbursts against Zuniga, against the referee, against Fifa, against anyone who would listen. Third, bargaining. Yesterday, a story surged of a doctor who offered treatment to Neymar which could allow him to play a potential final, despite the immense risks to the rest of his career. Fourth, depression. The Germany game is looming, and without Neymar and Thiago Silva, many in Brazil feel the Seleção are already eliminated. Here’s hoping they can reach stage five, acceptance, as soon as possible.