Do Brazil’s World Cup chances die along with Neymar’s participation in the tournament?
Not quite, but the likely absence of their No. 10 for the semi-finals and, should they get there, the final is a devastating blow to a Selecao side that has lacked for attacking creativity and inspiration even with the Barcelona forward in their ranks.
Neymar was the casualty of a rough-and-ready quarter-final on Friday, as the 22-year-old was stretchered off during the dramatic final minutes after taking one hefty challenge too many to the small of his back.
The immediate prognosis, simply from seeing his anguished expression as he was carried from the pitch, was not good. Then came the initial reports from the hospital: First it was a broken rib, then it was a fractured vertebrae. If either reports are true—and the team doctor later seemed to confirm the latter—then the poster boy for this World Cup will miss its conclusion.
Brazil will have to try to reach the summit without the player who carried the majority of their hopes.
"He was kneed in his lower back and he was crying out in pain," Brazil’s coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, told reporters, per Charles Reynolds of The Independent. "We don't have an idea [on the severity] but I can guarantee it won't be easy for him to recover, won't be easy based on what the doctor told us and the pain he is in."
It was ironic that a Brazilian player (and their star player at that) would pay the biggest price in a rough-and-tumble game that, in many ways, Scolari’s side instigated. Having been mediocre in so many aspects so far during the World Cup—their World Cup—this was the game where the Selecao sprang into life, where their passion spilled out far longer than the opening national anthems.
They harried and hassled their opponents from the off, trying to physically intimidate them and impose their strength on the game. It worked almost immediately, as captain Thiago Silva scored from an early corner, and so Brazil kept up their assault. When it came to Colombia’s key man, James Rodriguez, they kicked him wherever possible to dull his threat on the match.
As it became increasingly clear that the referee, Spaniard Carlos Velasco Carballo, would not be taking any real action, Colombia started to respond in kind.
In the end Brazil committed 31 fouls, with the match containing a record 54 in total. Yet there were only three yellow cards, and none before the 64th minute. The referee allowed many, many more questionable challenges to go unpunished.
Rodriguez more than once seemed bemused by the individual attention he was receiving. Perhaps it is something he will now have to get used to it, as he leaves the tournament as its top scorer with six goals.
He ultimately left the pitch on Friday crying, distraught at the way Colombia’s participation had ended in a 2-1 defeat (he scored a penalty after David Luiz had fired Brazil 2-0 ahead). He walked off the pitch with Luiz, and Dani Alves commanded the heavily partisan crowd to applaud the 22-year-old; a nice touch but also a somewhat hypocritical one, considering they had spent the previous hour-and-a-half doing everything they could to kick the threat out of him.
FIFA has wanted referees to ensure games in this World Cup are allowed to flow, for attacking players to be able to find a rhythm and exert an influence on proceedings. By and large that has happened, enabling Rodriguez and Neymar to express themselves in the eye-catching ways they have done.
But allowing a game to flow does not necessarily mean avoiding calling fouls. Sometimes awarding free-kicks and doling out cautions is exactly what is needed from the referee to set the tone, to keep defenders in line by showing that attackers will be protected.
Perhaps it was the fact that it was the hosts giving out the punishment, rather than receiving it, that led to Carballo's initial hesitancy. When the Republic of Ireland faced hosts Italy in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, Ireland boss Jack Charlton was pessimistic about his side’s chances.
"You’re going home after this," Charlton told his players, according to striker Tony Cascarino (writing in The Times). "You’ll get nothing from the referee."
So it proved: Ireland would lose 1-0 despite pushing their opponents all the way. Twenty-four years later, Colombia experienced a similarly frustrating night, as the referee afforded Rodriguez and his team-mates few 50-50 decisions and little protection against a side roared on by a partisan crowd at the Estadio Castelao.
Once Colombia started responding with physically robust challenges of their own, Carballo had already made a rod for his back (when Rodriguez was booked for one challenge late on, he was visibly astonished at being picked on after so many fouls against him had gone unchecked).
The game was already beyond Carballo's control, with the final kick in the teeth still to come.
"We are sad but very proud,” Rodriguez said (per Sky Sports). "The referee was wrong but Brazil is very good.
"We wanted to carry on but we hold our heads high. We're sad but we also have to feel proud because we left our skins out there."
Colombia’s players are now out of the competition, but it was Neymar who ended up paying the biggest physical price. Having seen how Rodriguez was being treated, and the disinterested response from the referee, they seemed to decide to respond in kind, meting out an aggressive punishment to their opponents, and Neymar in particular.
In the end, Neymar’s injury appeared to be nothing more than unfortunate—was there that much intent, other than simply to foul, in Juan Zuniga’s clumsy challenge?—but his injury cast into a sharper light the referee's handling of the whole contest.
"I never meant to hurt a player," Zuniga told reporters (per The Guardian's Daniel Taylor). "I was just defending my shirt."
Still, it seems the World Cup has lost one of its brightest lights. FIFA will no doubt be sending out new guidelines to those referees who may be asked to officiate the semi-finals or final.
"I don't think it is very likely that Neymar can do it," Scolari added, when asked if there was any chance Neymar could yet play in the final—should Brazil even get there. "But he is young, he has got a lot of energy, he takes care of himself, he does everything that has to be done to recover, so I don't know. Let's see."
It sounded like desperation, hope against hope. In 1966, at the World Cup in England, Pele was kicked out of the tournament by the rough treatment he received from opponents, and the lack of protection he was afforded from referees. Brazil's hopes went with him.
Scolari, Brazil and FIFA will hope that will not be the case this time.