OPINION: They call football the beautiful game, but it has been hard to see the beauty in the last few matches of the World Cup. The quarterfinal between Brazil and Colombia was ugly and cynical. Two of the best players at this tournament, Brazil's Neymar and Colombia's James Rodriguez, were kicked off the pitch.
Neymar had a vertebra fractured by the knee of Juan Zuniga, after the Colombian defender jumped into the back of the Brazilian forward. Neymar, unable to feel his legs, initially feared that he was paralysed.
Dilma Roussef, the president of Brazil, wrote a letter to Neymar saying her heart had been 'injured' when she saw the look of pain on the 22-year-old's face. When you have appeared on the cover of Vogue with Gisele Bundchen you get letters of consolation from the president.
But don't cry for Brazil, cry for football. Brazil were more sinning, than sinned against. At every World Cup we search for sugar man, the young player whose sweet skills fulfil Pele's vision of 'o jogo bonito'. It is hard to imagine a sweeter left foot than Lionel Messi's, but the star has been Rodriguez, with his own sinister leftie magic.
Rodriguez scores spectacular goals, but it is the ease with which he turns a traffic jam into an open country road that is so uplifitng. A shuffle of the feet, a flick of the hips and a stab of pace, and suddenly Rodriguez has turned away from trouble and is delivering freedom to the team-mates in front of him. He embodies the hopeful joy of youth when anything still seems possible.
Brazil's response to the free creative spirit of Rodriguez was to smash him up. Felipe Scolari may be a deeply religious man who encourages his players to put holy pebbles in their socks, but he has become a deeply cynical coach. He told his hard men to mug Rodriguez.
Little Oscar, with his choirboy looks, was the first to jump through the back of Rodriguez. Then Fernandinho took up the assault. Four times in the first half the Brazilian midfielder crashed through Rodriguez. The simpering Spanish referee, like a bent cop who knows the hit is on, looked the other way.
In the second half a new Brazilian was delegated to take up the assault. It was calculated and it shamed the World Cup. The horrible irony was that in the 67th minute Rodriguez mistimed a tackle, tried to pull his leg away, and was booked for the challenge, a foul that led to Brazil's winning goal. The young Colombian held up his hand to show how many times he had been kicked, but then realised there were not enough sufficient fingers.
Referee Carlos Velasco Carballo was so bad that one Colombian regional newspaper, the serenely named Diario del Magdalena, proclaimed: "Arbitro Espanol: hijo de la gran puta madre que te purio" - Spanish referee, son of a massive whore, the mother who bore you.
Sadly for Brazil, and lovers of football, the referee's refusal to protect Rodriguez, contributed to what one Brazilian paper described as a 'criminal' attack on Neymar.
The former Brazilian forward Ronaldo said, "I am in favour of very severe sanctions to those who don't want to play football and just want to do such violent tackles. It was an evil tackle."
Scolari said his player had been hunted. The newspaper Extra proclaimed, 'Cowardice takes Neymar out of the World Cup'. True, but it was Brazil's own cowardice that provoked the escalation.
The challenge on Neymar prompted an investigation by Fifa's disciplinary committee. Fifa's head of media Delia Fischer said, "The spirit of fair play is very important and we want to avoid difficult things on the field of play." It is so important that Fifa did not investigate the calculated assault on Rodriguez, and then, with a wave of the rule book, spinelessly refused to address the attack on Neymar.
Fifa has been washing the filth off its hands for years. Back in the 80's Andoni Goikoetxea, aka the Butcher of Bilbao, smashed up Diego Maradona's ankle. It was "like wood cracking," said Maradona. The Butcher kept his boot or assault weapon in a glass case at home.
That is the real world, a world where lesser men break the skills and dreams of men such as Rodriguez, Neymar and Messi. Two of those men have already now left the World Cup. Let us hope Lionel Messi, "water in the desert" according to his coach, can survive.
Fifa sells the beautiful game, but the awful truth is that men of sublime skills are hunted to extinction at major championships. Cristiano Ronaldo was hunted out of a European Championship. Rodriguez and Neymar have been kicked out of this World Cup. Only Messi survives. For now.
Fifa has a perfectly good set of directives: 'A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball when it is in play. A tackle that endangers the safety of an opponent must be sanctioned as serious foul play. The referee must send off the player guilty of serious foul play when the ball is next out of play.'
But at every level of the game - and it is prevalent in club football here in New Zealand - craven refs are too afraid to send people off. They fear the threat of subsequent violence on and off the pitch. But the violence to football is far greater. If we need a seven-a-side World Cup final, then so be it. At least we could watch Messi play the beautiful game.
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