KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- A crunching assult which removed Brazil superstar Neymar from the World Cup has rebalanced perspectives on the latter stages of the finals.
Goals from Thiago Silva and man of the match David Luiz brought the hosts a 2-1 win over Colombia in a tense quarter-final in Fortaleza. But Brazil’s progress was acheived at the heaviest possible price. They will confront a revived Germany, in Tuesday’s semi-final in Belo Horizonte, without both Thiago Silva and Neymar.
The absence of Thiago, captain and rock of a central defender, is due to suspension and is an absence Brazil can probably manage for one game after he collected a second tournament yellow card against the Colombia who responded late in the game but managed only a consolation penalty goal from James Rodriguez.
However Neymar is a different story entirely. Brazil’s superstar inspiration and only consistent source of goals will miss the rest of the tournament after cracking the third lumpar vertebra when battered from behind, late in the second half, by defender Camilo Zuniga. This was the third crunching assault to which Neymar had been subject under the acquiescently incompetent refereeing of Spanish official Carlos Velasco Carballo.
Neymar was carried off on a stretcher, in tears. His World Cup was over. For all anyone knows Brazil’s dreams of a sixth cup in front of their own fans to exorcise the spectre of 1950, went with him on that stretcher.
Memories of 1966
Zuniga risks down in the annals of Brazilian football infamy with the Portuguese defender Joao Morais who, effectively, kicked Pele out of the 1966 World Cup. The Colombian said later: “I didn’t intend to hurt him but I was defending the colours of my country. I am sorry for his injury and I pray to God that he recovers very quickly.”
An x-ray clarified the split in bone which needs to knit and repair before the Barcelona superstar can think of playing again. An initial estimate from a specialist in such injuries estimated that, as a young man, he could hope to be ready to restart in five or six weeks.
That will be good news for Barcelona but it spells disaster for Brazil and is a major disappointment for the overall health of a dramatically entertaining World Cup in general.
Brazil had leaned inordinately on the 22-year-old without whom they would not even have been playing Colombia. Neymar scored the goal which put Brazil ahead of Croatia in the Opening Match then struck twice in the group-clinching victory over Cameroon. Next came his goal then nerveless penalty conversion against Chile in the second round.
The brilliance of Neymar is his simple love of the game. Hence his loss is not only a grievous loss to Brazil but to the entire 2014 World Cup finals. It’s as if a light has gone out and these headlamp-bright finals are suddenly dimmed.
The Barcelona forward is everywhere in Brazil, either on the advertisement hoardings or on the backs of fans’ shirts or in the popular ‘hairstyle’ wigs and hats all over the streets. Manager Luis Felipe Scolari sought to explain this unique talent after the defeat of the Chileans in the preceding South American derby.
Felipao said: “He’s a simple boy. He likes playing football so he does it as if he’s playing with his friends at Santos. That’s how he sees it because he loves his job. So when it comes to it he forgets it’s a penalty shootout at the World Cup and treats it as if it were a pick-up game with his friends.”
Neymar took a battering from the Chileans and Brazil’s medical staff raced successfully against time to restore him to fitness in time for the Colombians. Perhaps they did not quite succeed. Perhaps he was caught three times in half an hour because he was not able to move with his usual intuitive agility.
The injury will exacerbate discussion over levels and values of punishment. Zuniga did not so much as collect a yellow card for his violent assault though this, at least, left open the route for FIFA’s disciplinary committee to take unilateral action.
If Zuniga can get away with a physically harmful assault which could even prove career-threatening, runs the argument, FIFA’s disciplinary authorities will find it difficult to justify a four-month on another player – Luis Suarez of Uruguay – for ‘merely’ biting an opponent.
FIFA spokesperson Delia Fischer has said that the disciplinary committee will gather, and assess, reports of the incident to decide whether to open proceedings against Zuniga.
The converse argument about Brazil’s next task, against Germany in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday, is that Neymar’s injury will instil the ‘siege mentality’ effect which, notably Sir Alex Ferguson used to employ to such powerful effect at Manchester United. Purporting that the world was against them Ferguson would whip up an extra strata of psychological anger and resistance.
But Neymar’s value was not only in his talent on the ball but the confidence injection his presence provided so that all his team-mates felt that, as long as he was on the pitch, nothing was beyond them.
Home advantage plus the explosive talent of Neymar would have established Brazil’s status as favourites against Germany. Suddenly, with the Germans demonstrating in their 1-0 win over France a tactical intelligence and versatility beyond any other World Cup survivor, the odds do not look anything like as certain.