Brazil may have won today against Colombia, but they suffered two huge losses in the process. The first, a ridiculously stupid yellow card by Thiago Silva, knocked the captain out of the semifinal with Germany due to a suspension. The second though, announced by a team doctor after the game, is even more devastating. Neymar, the face of the World Cup, has broken a vertebra, ruling him out for the rest of the tournament.
Brazil now faces the harsh reality of a semifinal against Germany without its two most important players. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari will have to be at his best this week getting his other players mentally ready for playing without their superstar, as the Neymar injury will come as an equal blow to the psyche of both the team and the fans. The poster child won’t be there to save them any longer. Players like Hulk, Fred and Oscar will need to be step up their games three or four notches.
Neymar has always been a fragile player on the field, one who was easy to knock around due to his slight build. Teams everywhere would try to stop him by clipping his heels and going body-to-body, hoping he would begin to shy away from contact. The one time I have seen Neymar play in person – the Gold Medal match in London in 2012, when Mexico beat Brazil 2-1 – it was clear that any time Neymar touched the ball, a Mexican was headed straight for his body. He hit the ground time after time. And since then, that’s become the prevalent strategy for defending the young Brazilian.
I believe it is the referee’s duty to protect the players. I’m not advocating for protecting the stars. I’m advocating for protecting players in general. If a team’s strategy involves consistently knocking a player to the ground, that team’s players should be reprimanded. Yellow cards must be shown to discourage the continued use of that tactic. For the most part in this World Cup, referees haven’t gone out of their way to protect Neymar. You might say he rolls around on the ground too often, but there’s a reason he’s always on the ground and it’s not flopping. He gets hit. And the referees haven’t been doing much about it.
Today, referee Carlos Velasco Carballo was determined not to show any yellow cards. As a result, the Colombians were free to play rough with Neymar. There would be no consequences it seemed. And Brazil lashed out in retaliation. The match quickly got out of hand, with fouls piling up by the minute. However, the Spanish referee did nothing. Neymar’s injury came late in the second half from a brutal challenge that had Juan Zuniga kneeing Neymar in the back. The intent was clear, but because of the way the game had been officiated, Zuniga knew there would be no consequences. “It was a typical play,” he said after the game, showing that knocking down Neymar had become the norm in that match.
When fouls pile up, yellow cards need to be handed out, regardless of the time in the game. Keeping 11 men on the field for both sides should not be a goal for the referee. He should want to control the game, keeping things clean. A yellow card for a deliberate, early tackle from Colombia could have sent a message that the referee wasn’t going to mess around today. But instead, he let everything go. That an injury resulted is no surprise, but that it happened to Neymar himself should send a message to FIFA: the referees need to focus on protecting the players on the pitch rather than protecting the cards in their pocket. No referee should be afraid of exerting control.
As big as the loss of Neymar is for Brazil, Thiago Silva’s absence could prove just as devastating. The central defender was excellent today, and showed why many consider him to be the world’s best defender. His yellow card was one you’d expect from a fifth grader, not a seasoned veteran. Stealing the ball from the goalie as he punts it has never been allowed and everyone knows that. So why do you try that in a World Cup quarterfinal with a yellow card already to your name? He deserves to miss the next match for his stupidity alone.
Brazil will now be at a severe disadvantage against Germany and frankly, I don’t think they overcome their losses. They are simply too great. It’s a sad day for soccer fans.