By Paul Gardner
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Down to the final four, and things seem to have arranged themselves pretty much as expected. The cream of South America -- Brazil and Argentina -- against the best of Europe, Germany and the Netherlands.
Not really. Truth is that neither Brazil nor Argentina has looked like the cream of anything. Both have labored, sometimes in ugly fashion, to get where they are.
Argentina’s need of Lionel Messi is now alarmingly apparent. And Brazil, after some foul-strewn games, has lost Neymar to a nasty, reckless challenge. A challenge that ought never to have happened, but a challenge that was in the making from the start of the tournament, surely fashioned by the eccentricities of the refereeing. We’ll come to that shortly.
For Europe, the Dutch have veered from apparently unstoppable (in their 5-1 annihilation of Spain) to mysteriously ineffective -- not only in the 0-0 tie with Costa Rica, but for most of the game against Mexico.
Argentina-Netherlands looks in cliche terms, to be “finely balanced.” But the Dutch have their match winner, Arjen Robben, full of his inexhaustible Pinocchio-like movement and his explosive skills. Argentina has Messi, but they have lost both Sergio Aguero and Angel di Maria to injury.
Only Germany, of this final four, has played up to its own high caliber. Even so, there have been some stutters: Things didn’t go all that well against Algeria, and the 1-0 quarterfinal win was accomplished against a French team so torpid that one could only wonder how it had managed to stay awake to get this far. Germany, in short, has yet to be really challenged.
It will get that ordeal against Brazil, no doubt. Brazil is a wounded animal. Without Neymar, and without Thiago Silva, its captain. Thiago’s suspension reflects absolutely nothing but crass stupidity on the player himself. Interfering with a goalkeeper’s release of the ball (as Thiago did against Colombia’s David Ospina) is a specific offense. It is not an automatic yellow, but Thiago must know that goalkeepers nearly always get the call, and frequently get opponents yellow-carded as well. What on earth was the guy thinking? Steer clear of goalkeepers, who have all the advantages of a protected species, should be the thinking here.
The loss of Neymar may well mean the blossoming of Oscar, who does appear to have been playing in subdued fashion, overshadowed by all the publicity for Neymar, and probably resenting his own consignment to the shadows. Germany will not find this an easy game. Nor will Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez.
It has become increasingly difficult during this tournament to maintain enthusiastic support for Brazil. Not with its record of 96 fouls and 10 yellow cards.
Coach Felipe Scolari can argue that Brazil, so to speak, is merely trying to keep up with his opponents ... and can anyone doubt that Neymar has been a marked man? The trouble with that argument is that Scolari would appear to have adopted the trusty M.O. of retaliating first.
The classic example of that came in the opening minutes of the Brazil-Chile round of 16 game. Brazil’s Fernandinho pulled off his first foul after only 13 seconds. Two minutes later he smashed into Chile’s Charles Aranguiz. Chile was not to be intimidated. Just over a minute later, Gary Medel ploughed heavily into Neymar -- sending him to the sideline for treatment.
Which brings us to the refereeing. How to define what we have seen so far. The word I would use -- a rather curious word, admittedly -- is ... suspicious. A word I would surely not be using if I were certain that I knew what instructions this group of referees received before the tournament. But I do not know.
I have searched for a statement from Massimo Busacca, the Swiss ex-referee who is in charge. I have found nothing. Certainly nothing on the FIFA website, where such a statement ought to be. I have asked a number of important soccer people who, in my opinion, ought to know. But all of them have replied that they know nothing.
In fact, the only reference I have come across is from an interview with English referee Howard Webb, who was quoted as saying that the “protection of players” was the chief concern.
Ironic, that. Because Webb was the referee of the Brazil-Chile game that I just mentioned. He called both of the fouls I cited, but did not card either of the offenders.
That is one of the things that arouses my suspicions. A rough (totally unofficial) count of yellow cards so far reveals twice as many in the second half as in the first. OK, referees may well be reluctant to give early cards as it increases the possibility of their having to eject someone. But this looks a lot more like referee-caution than player-protection.
In the Brazil-Chile game, Webb ended up giving seven yellow cards, and calling 51 fouls -- in an overtime game, meaning, say, 40 in the 90-minute game. Which is a lot.
Webb’s permissive approach to physical fouling is to be expected -- it is standard English Premier League practice. But I am greatly surprised to see it operating here. It would be stretching things too far to blame Neymar’s injury on Webb, but I do think the lenient Webb approachcomes under accusation. In other games, it also seemed to me that both Spain’s Carlos Velasco Carballo (Brazil-Colombia) and Italy’s Nicola Rizzoli (Argentina-Belgium) were too permissive.
And we have not yet heard the last from the referees. We are now in the knockout phase, time for the shootouts. I have pointed out, recently, that referees do not seem properly trained to deal with these situations. The most recent example was the final of this year’s Europa League final, won by Sevilla, but only after blatant cheating by its goalkeeper in the shootout. Cheating -- forward movement, that is -- that was easily visible, but was apparently not seen by the referee or either of his assistants.
Will that sort of incompetence be allowed here? So far we’ve had three shoot-outs and I think -- repeat, I think -- that goalkeeper behavior has been within bounds. Even so, we have seen one disturbing example of hopelessly unsatisfactory refereeing during a shootout. Why did referee Ravshan Irmatov allow the Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul to stroll around freely near the penalty spot when the Costa Rican player was preparing to take his kick?
Did Irmatov not ask himself whyKrul was doing this? Krul should have been ordered, under threat of an instant yellow card, to get where he belonged, on the goal line. Did Krul’s behavior influence the kickers? Who knows, but you can be quite sure that Krul intendedsuch influence. And he did make the two crucial saves.
What this points to is that the referees -- or, at least, Irmatov -- have not been properly prepared for the shootout. If that is the case, my adjective for the refereeing changes from suspicious to ominous.