RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — "I kept getting tripped up and kicked to pieces ...," said Brazil's superstar player, "and the referee did nothing to protect me or my teammates from these rough-house tactics."
Neymar, describing how he was battered at this World Cup and is now out after a Colombian opponent fractured his back?
No, this was Pele, recalling opponents' vicious fouls that hobbled him at the 1966 tournament, part of what prompted a (later rescinded) vow from the king of futebol never to play in the World Cup again.
In short, the warning signs that Neymar was going to be targeted, that rival players without his genius would use force to stop him because they don't have his skills, were decades old. They were there for all to see in Brazil — except, clearly, for referees and FIFA officials who are as guilty as Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuniga for Neymar's ruined World Cup. They did too little to protect the 22-year-old from football's brutes, the cynical masters of the dark art of kicking rivals black, blue and out.
And now it's too late. Time will mend Neymar's fractured third vertebra. But it will never be able to give back the one chance he had to win the World Cup on home soil. He will have retired whenever football's showcase tournament next visits these shores. That wound can never be healed.
Zuniga's post-match explanation — "I didn't mean to hurt him" — was as worthless as Brazil's currency in the days of hyperinflation. Zuniga may not have intended to break a bone. But any time anyone takes a running jump at the small of someone's back with their knee raised like a battering ram, physical damage is likely, predictable and so also avoidable.
At best, Zuniga was reckless. We would call police and personal injury lawyers if someone charged us like this on the street, sending us to hospital. In football, Zuniga's lack of care toward another human being didn't even earn him a caution.
FIFA and the Brazilian government needed so badly for the football to be brilliant at this World Cup. And it has been, partly because FIFA referees are being lenient with fouls, not handing out as many cautions and red cards as they should and letting play run on. That is what Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo did when Zuniga ended Neymar's World Cup, leaving him face down in agony on the pitch.
But what Carballo didn't do is as much of a concern. He blew for 54 fouls but handed out just four yellow cards, two to Brazilians and two to Colombians. In short, he saw ugly play all around him but didn't do enough to stop it.
That is being repeated across this World Cup. There was no caution for Belgium players who hacked in succession at Lionel Messi's legs as he made a first-half run for goal in Saturday's quarterfinal. The slow-motion was hypnotic, revolting, showing boots aiming not for the ball but for the calves, shins and ankles of the four-time world player of the year.
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