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Neymar injury robs Brazil and the World Cup of its star attraction

Sunday, July 06, 2014 by Telegraph.co.uk
Key Words: Neymar Brazil

Former World Cup winners Ronaldo, Lothar Matthäus and Fabio Cannavaro react angrily to the cynical challenge that broke Neymar's heart and ended his tournament

Brazil without Neymar is like Rio de Janeiro without Christ the Redeemer. Still good, still enjoyable, but definitely missing a star attraction, a major reference point. A cynical Colombian placed his knee at speed in the back of Neymar, damaging his third vertebrae, breaking his heart and ending his World Cup, hitherto a tournament about expression not nihilism. Christ, the reducer.

No wonder former players, legendary World Cup winners like Ronaldo, Lothar Matthäus and Fabio Cannavaro reacted angrily. Gathered at Fifa’s bequest at Maracana to debate the quality of this tournament, they used the platform to voice their disgust at what had befallen Neymar, the man whose name adorns a million shirts.

Ronaldo spoke as he once played, speeding to his target. “It was a very violent, unlawful tackle,’’ Ronaldo said. “We all have to fight for football to have more fair play. We have to demand that sanctions to be given to violent players. 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.’’

Although praising the quality of officiating generally at this World Cup, Ronaldo questioned the performance of Carlos Velasco Carballo in Fortaleza on Friday night. The Spaniard, an experienced referee and familiar face on the Champions League circuit, did not punish Juan Zuniga for the challenge that left Neymar writhing on the ground, placed on a stretcher, taken to hospital and eventually ruled out of action for "four weeks" according to the Brazil team doctor. “He lost his authority on the pitch,’’ Ronaldo said of Carballo.

Brazil’s coach, Luis Felipe Scolari, believed that the Colombians were out “hunting” Neymar. “I don’t believe there was a ‘hunt’ for Neymar,’’ Ronaldo said, “but we could see there was an intention by the Colombian player to cause some harm.’’

The way that Zuniga leapt into Neymar, the speed, force and angle of the knee would suggest this was no normal sporting collision. As well as calling on Fifa to punish Zuniga, Ronaldo argued that the incident accelerated the arrival of video technology. “I’m in favour,’’ Ronaldo said. “We have goal-line technology brought in for this World Cup and it’s not been a hindrance.”

Yet that was for issues of fact, of whether the ball has crossed the line. Establishing intent such as Zuniga’s was more difficult. “This debate about technology in football has to grow. We should use technology on behalf of football.” On protecting the stars.

Agreement came from Cannavaro, who gave a defender’s insight into the situation. The man who led Italy to 2006 World Cup glory was a defender of great stealth and timing, who used intelligence rather than belligerence in challenging for the ball. “I didn’t like that high knee,’’ Cannavaro said of Zuniga. “When Neymar had the ball, there was no possibility of his [Zuniga] getting the ball like this. Neymar is not transparent. It was a foul with intention to cause harm. It will be very hard for Fifa to accept such a challenge because it is very evident foul. Everybody who has ever played the game knows that.’’
Ronaldo nodded. Disciplinary action was required. A counter-argument could be posed that if the foul had been on a less-celebrated player than Neymar there would not be the same intensity of focus. Yet the game has to about the stars, about Neymar, just as it was with Ronaldo. Children do not fall in love with the game watching Luiz Gustavo. They are bewitched by the likes of Ronaldo and Neymar.

Ronaldo knows all about suffering World Cup anguish; in 1998, severely stressed, the Brazil No 9 was a ghost at the World Cup final banquet in Paris. Brazil lost and Ronaldo arrived in Japan and South Korea four years later determined to make up for his frustration in France. His perspective on Neymar was as a Brazilian fan who wanted the best players on the pitch, as a former player who has endured injury’s untimely intervention (particularly with his knees) but also as a human being. He felt for Neymar, knowing his distress that his World Cup dream had ended.

So as the increasingly depressing bulletins were issued by the Brazilian camp on Friday night, Ronaldo texted his stricken compatriot. “I sent Neymar a message, conveying my support and solidarity. I told him the whole country is proud of him and the team will win the World Cup and dedicate it to him.

“I felt the physical pain of the strike he suffered and the worst pain of having to abandon the World Cup. This is the World Cup in Brazil. Neymar had so many dreams, playing a World Cup in his own country, in front of his people. He’s suffering in life, having to abandon this World Cup.’’

Sitting alongside Ronaldo was Matthäus, the embodiment of German sporting excellence and also their footballers’ compassionate streak as seen in Turin when Matthäus consoled Chris Waddle after his semi-final penalty miss. Germany, as usual, are back in another semi-final, facing Ronaldo’s nation.

At one point, Ronaldo stood up, clenched his fists and shaped up as a boxer towards Matthäus, Brazil v Germany. “That’s not fair,” Matthäus said with a smile. “We’re a different weight category.”

But he shared Ronaldo’s disgust at events in Fortaleza. Matthäus took no pleasure in Brazil’s loss of Neymar to injury and also their captain, Thiago Silva, to suspension. “Neymar’s injury came as a shock to us,’’ Matthäus said. “Some people will think we have an advantage. We went to play against the best of the best.

“Neymar is one of those players who can make the difference. We have tears in our eyes when we see the image of Neymar yesterday and heard the information about his injury. We wish him a speedy recovery.

“No German fan or player is happy with Neymar being injured. We want the spirit of fair play and that wasn’t there [by Zuniga]. But Brazil don’t just have 11 players. They have a very good squad. I think Dante will play instead of Thiago Silva and he’s used to pressure because he plays for Bayern Munich where there’s a constant obligation to perform. Thiago Silva is easily replaceable. To replace Neymar is just not possible. It could be Willian who is used to pressure, having played for Shakhtar and now for Chelsea.’’

Ronaldo responded, issuing a rallying cry: “We are fearful and sad about out loss but if the German team believe they are going to come against weak, demoralised team because of the loss of Neymar, the Germans will be making an enormous mistake. Brazil are never made up of just one player. Pele got hurt in the 1962 World Cup [against Czechoslovakia] and Brazil still won. We’ve lost a very important figure, our main reference, but perhaps Fred may step up and become a more important player for Brazil.

“I believe we will win [against Germany] because I believe so much in our national team.”

They will miss Neymar, though. Advantage Germany – thanks to Zuniga.

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