Brazilians are slowly coming to terms with the news that Neymar will play no further part in this World Cup.
News of Neymar’s fractured vertebrae, the result of being kneed in the back by Colombian defender Camilo Zuniga, filtered through last night, dampening celebrations that followed the tense 2-1 quarter-final victory over Colombia.
Zuniga stopped short of an apology. “It was a normal move,” he said. “I never meant to hurt a player. I was on the field, playing for the shirt from my country, not without the intent to injure. I was just defending my shirt.”
However, FIFA’s disciplinary committee said on Saturday morning that it was considering whether to take action against Zuniga, who was not punished during the game.
Neymar has been the undoubted star of his country’s quest for a sixth World Cup. His loss casts a huge shadow over their campaign. Yet his absence from the Brazil side that face Germany in the first semi-final in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday offers a huge opportunity to Willian to step in as Neymar’s replacement.
Captain Thiago Silva, whse yellow card against Colombia has ruled him out of the semi-final, suggested Neymar’s absence could be used to motivate the squad ahead of the meeting with Germany. “We have proposed to win the World Cup for Neymar because of the injury he suffered,” he said. “This moment could mark the start of a revolution for us. He hopes and expects a lot from this group, and this could unite us, it could give us more determination to win.”
For Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, Neymar’s injury presents a major tactical challenge. Since the Confederations Cup a year ago, his entire strategy had been built around providing a team to support and protect Neymar. There has been no plan B. Even his alternative to the preferred 4-2-3-1 – a 4-3-3 with Ramires replacing Hulk in midfield, has involved Neymar in a front three with Fred and Oscar.
Scolari is first and foremost a pragmatist. He has never tied himself to a single formation. His 2002 World Cup-winning side played with three centre-backs to incorporate the talents of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. Twelve years on, the lack of goals from centre-forward Fred as not been a problem for Brazil because Neymar has come to the team’s rescue.
Now Scolari must find a way to produce goals against Germany, without succumbing to German counter-attacks. In yesterdays’s quarter-final in Rio, France were hamstrung by their determination not be caught on the break by Germany, but lacked the creativity to find a way through’s Germany midfield.
While Scolari contemplates his tactical options, the wider tournament is left debating the issue of violent play. Over the last 20 years, since Italia 90, FIFA has done much to protect and promote attacking play, yet this World Cup has seen a lenient approach from referees. While this has had the benefit of contributing to the abundance of attacking play, there was always a danger that a leading creative talent would be injured.
Zuniga committed a violent tackle on Neymar but he was no means the only guilty party in where a game where numerous dangerous tackles went unpunished by Spanish Carlos Velasco Carbello. Brazil had been guilty themselves of targetting Colombia’s James Rodriguez for rough treatment so perhaps it was no surprise that Thiago Silva conceded that he did not think Zuniga was a violent player who intentionally set out to hurt Neymar.
While Zuniaa’s foul on Neymar was not punished by referee Velasco Carbello, it is also true that Brazil, as the host nation, have benefitted from several refereeing decisions at this World Cup. In the tournament’s opening game, Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura was influenced by the Sao Paulo crowd.
Perhaps more blame should be aimed at FIFA for selecting a European referee for an all-South American contest. The policy of selecting an official from another continent has some merit, but is not entirely logical. Sometimes, a little more common sense is needed.
That, of course, will be of no consolation to Neymar and the millions of Brazilians whose World Cup quest now faces its hardest test against Germany on Tuesday.