Dutch and Argentines well-balanced; For Germany, the Brazilian cauldron awaits

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 approach comes 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 why Krul 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 intended such 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.
23 comments about "Dutch and Argentines well-balanced; For Germany, the Brazilian cauldron awaits".
  1. Bob Escobar, July 7, 2014 at 11:16 a.m.

    Amen!!! Paul Gardner once again proved he is the best soccer analyst in this country....yes, the referees are letting too much rough play go on, the European teams and Brazil have taken advantage of this permissive situation, reckless tackles galore in the Brazil vs Colombia game is a prime example of "roughing it up" mentality. I still like Argentina (with Messi) to win it all, I believe Messi have saved the best for last!

  2. Mario Araujo, July 7, 2014 at 11:37 a.m.

    Agreed! How can one of the best players of the tournament be left out by a criminal tackle that went unpunished? The UEFA referee gave advantage near the defensive third of Brazil. I have lost all respect for UEFA referees. The worst referees of the world cup have been from UEFA. FIFA is also a disgrace placing UEFA referees on games with UEFA teams that is a conflict of interest. After years of forcing referees to call tighter games in the world cup, FIFA is now moving in the opposite direction and allows too many fouls go with little or no punishment. Zuniga should have been punished as his tackle deserves a severe sanction.

  3. ROBERT BOND, July 7, 2014 at 11:40 a.m.

    DFB's edge-depth-even losing Reus......

  4. Ginger Peeler, July 7, 2014 at 12:45 p.m.

    Trash-talking in the World Cup? Unbelievable!!! And Taylor Twellman approved! He should know better! Taylor's a cute kid, but not a great soccer brain. I was yelling at the referee when Krul marched up to a kicker and got in his face. Then he repeated the action,with impunity, as the referee stood by. Whaaaat? Now Krul's bragging about it! So this tournament has become a win at all costs, the end justifies the means, mess. Tomorrow we have the referee who missed the Big Bite. Surely other refs have done a better job and should be whistling the game? I know he's from CONCACAF and our own ref, Mark Geiger, is the 4th official for the game, but I'm worried.

  5. Gus Keri, July 7, 2014 at 1:40 p.m.

    Maybe one day, people will start point the accusing finger at coaches. Referees can't please everyone. In the famous 2006 meeting between Netherland and Portugal, (the so-called massacre of Nuremburg), referee gave 16 yellow card and 4 red cards (every one of them was legit) and the two teams still went for it. They have never stopped fouling each other until the final whistle. The question is "how much can the referee do if the instructions from the coaches are: "take no prisoners." Scolari have trained this Brazil team to be very physical and we have seen it a lot this cup. He has never thought that this approach might bite back and cost him his superstar. Many of the fouls against Neymar were in retaliation to fouls from other members of the Brazil team against the opponents. At one stage, people should stop and think. Coaches who use this approach should be reprimanded. It's not always the referee's responsibility.

  6. ROBERT BOND, July 7, 2014 at 2:09 p.m.

    DFB will retaliate if needful, don't start it, tho'....78 & rainy in Belo tomorrow....

  7. Albert Harris, July 7, 2014 at 3:14 p.m.

    I'm glad I wasn't the only one screaming at the TV about the blatant unsportsmanship and intimidation by the Dutch goalkeeper. I was asking for a "get back on your line" to start followed by a yellow card the second tome. In retrospect if we don't want to have these goons doing this in every PK shootout in the future, it needs an immediate yellow card and if that's his 2nd card, a red. Then it's the offending team's problem where they get a goalkeeper. It only needs to happen once and the problem is forever solved.

  8. Kent James, July 7, 2014 at 4:27 p.m.

    Gus, I remember the "massacre at Nurenburg" quite well, and I agree with you, the ref got the calls exactly right. I was surprised that the players did not learn (the ref set the bar, and was very consistent); usually, especially at the WC level, the players adjust to the referee, but there must have been something in the water that day. But when the refs do not set the bar, by "keeping the cards in the pocket and letting them play", that is the fault of the referee. I have no doubt that coaches encourage physical play (which is especially criminal for someone like Scolari, who can field such skillful players and chooses not to), but it would be hard to sanction the coaches for the behavior of the players. You might say that Karma is sanctioning Brazil (unfortunately for Neymar and the rest of us). As for the crew that missed the "big bite", don't be too hard on them. That's the kind of thing you might even see as an AR (or catch out of the corner of your eye, since the ball was gone), and it is so bizarre that you question your own eyes (on the other hand, if you thought you saw it and Chielo has teethmarks, there would be no need for further questioning..). I was out of the room for Krul's interaction with the first kicker; something like that can be difficult to police, since many players know each other so speaking to an opponent may not necessarily be unsporting (and again, you don't expect a keeper to blatantly try to intimidate a kicker like that at this level). But once the ref realized what was happening, he should have carded Krul. On the second kicker, the ref was physically closer and moved to intercept Krul (which is what he should have done on the first one), but as Gardner points out, he should have told Krul to get on the line. I think an underlying theme in all of these ref incidents is that refs, like players, feel the pressure and sometimes lack the courage of their convictions to do what needs to be done. I hope they get it together for the rest of the games because they will have even more pressure and the teams will be doing whatever they can to win, since unfortunately, win at all costs (hacking and diving) has frequently benefited those who've engaged in it (I'm looking at you Robben and Brazil...).

  9. Gus Keri, July 7, 2014 at 4:51 p.m.

    Kent, I am assuming the second part of your comment is directed to Ginger Peeler. I didn't criticized the ref for missing the bite. It was like the Zidane's head-butt which was missed by every one until the side-line referee saw it on monitor replay. This incidence also was missed by every one and it's not a fault of the ref or his assistants because there are a lot of things going on at the same time. In regard to the coaches, I didn't say that they need to be sanctioned. But at least the press should point out their roles in making the game look like a battlefield and making very difficult for any ref to referee. Scolari & Perreira are the sole responsible for the death of the jugo bonito.

  10. Kent James, July 7, 2014 at 5:06 p.m.

    Gus, yes, just the first part of my post was a response to you, and I certainly agree with your point. I just can't figure out how to correct the coach's behavior (and I'm sure some players' behavior, such as Pepe's and Thiago Silva's incidents,drive coaches batty). But I do think players' behavior is a reflection of the coach (not perfect, but generally accurate). I think it is largely up to the referees (and later sanctions imposed by FIFA) to keep player behavior in check. But refs can't get it all, so they need to be supported with video replay, goal line technology, etc...I thought many of the first round games were quite clean, but starting with the round of 16, things have gotten ugly...

  11. beautiful game, July 7, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.

    FIFA keeps putting together a global tournament and is clueless in preparing these referees for it. I agree with Paul, the Dutch keeper should have been immediately sanctioned for 'taunting' the opponents. The 'suspicions' will carry into the semi and final, guaranteed. These refs need a Soccer 101 in counting out the ten yards, not 8 or 7 on free kicks, etc.

  12. Brian Something, July 7, 2014 at 6:55 p.m.

    Of course it'd be stretching things too far to blame Neymar's injury on Webb. Webb was not the referee for the game in which the incident happened. It did not happen in Brazil-Chile game. It happened in Brazil-Colombia. Gardner should get his facts straight before ranting.

  13. Cristian Deseanu, July 7, 2014 at 8:47 p.m.

    Brian, you might want to read again what Gardner was saying. I too consider that Webb is to blame! Not for the incident where Neymar got injured, but for the way he does his job! I'm pretty sure that other referees are watching the games too. And if Webb gets by with his way, some might take him as an example.
    And another thing. I read in a paper that Tiago Silva is not only stupid, but also a coward! They were saying that against Chile he didn't wanted to take the penalty kick! Can anyone tell me if this is true? Is there a video of him asking Scolari not to chose him?

  14. Ramon Creager, July 7, 2014 at 10:55 p.m.

    This World Cup has been irretrievably marred by poor refereeing. Those who blame UEFA referees (or Japanese referees, or Algerian referees, etc.) are barking up the wrong tree. This is FIFA's doing. I'm familiar with Velasco Carballo (who did the Brazil v. Colombia game) from La Liga and I can say that his reputation is as a disciplinarian, not as a permissive referee. They've been told by FIFA to keep the cards in the pocket. This has led to a situation where we see only ~45 minutes of action per 90-minute game, thanks to the frequent tactical fouling. I'll repeat: this is FIFA's fault. And I hate to say this, but it is no accident that this has greatly benefited teams like Brazil, at the expense of teams that must rely on a counterattacking style (which makes it hugely ironic that it led to Neymar missing the rest of the WC). Time and again counterattacks have been stopped cold by a tactical foul (for which the Laws stipulate a caution).

  15. Eduardo Castro, July 8, 2014 at 11:05 a.m.

    Don't you think soccer is set up for this kind of failure. Think of the size of a basketball court or hockey rink v. a soccer field and the numbers of players involved in each, and they have two refs v. one. For that matter, four umpires in baseball just to make sure the rather rare close call is called right.

  16. Eduardo Castro, July 8, 2014 at 11:15 a.m.

    at second and third base that is.

  17. Vendetta diPirlo, July 8, 2014 at 1:35 p.m.

    Bravo Gardner, but you did not mention the Italy Uruguay game enough where Marchisio was expelled for a foul committed 10s of times without any cards by Brazilians on Columbian forward James, as well as not sanctioning the freaky vampire Suarez for biting Chiellini. If FIFA has allowed the ref of Italy Uruguay to continue working then there are serious incompetence, corruption problems with the organization not limited to the buying of the WC by Qatar. I hope Rodriguez has not been assigned to the game to expel some Germans tonight so this brutal Brazil squad will get to the final.

  18. Katherine Harris, July 9, 2014 at 11:25 a.m.

    "Germany, in short, has yet to be really challenged. It will get that ordeal against Brazil, no doubt ... Germany will not find this an easy game." They seemed to manage, Paul.

  19. Santiago 1314, July 9, 2014 at 12:04 p.m.

    Paul, I hate to say I told you all so...REPOST from:;;commented on: July 5, 2014 at 10:09 p.m.**((Weakest Brazil Team EVER!!! If they weren't playing at Home, that would have been Out, Long Ago.. Sorry for Neymar, was a Typical Knee to Back, Hamstring, Buttocks, that any Player knows how to Deliver... Never seen a Broken Vertibra from one....Tragic for the WC, because we only have Messi and Robben left to WOW us... Still say USA could have Won it if JK had bright a Sub for Jozy.. Change 9 out of the 10 players Jerseys, and you wouldn't know the Difference))**......I am not sure that Paul is the Best Soccer Analyst in this Country, He Certainly is the Best Referee Basher in the Country…And Rightly so…Most of these Refs look like they are ON-Trial to be in the BPL…They should be on Trial, as Accomplices to Man(Player) Slaughter…Broken Legs, Broken Backs, Broken Noses, Biting,..etc..etc..etc!!! Refs are afraid to Yellow Card……**How about a Blue Card (5 minute) Hockey Style Penalty Box??? Could even be imposed by a TV Official for Diving, and other things the Ref Misses during the play…The Camera work has been FANTASTIC and a Quick Communication to the Referee Headset, could have Offenders sent to the Penalty Box......**On the Bright Side, At least the MLS “Foam on the Foot” Cans have taken out a lot of the Squabbling at Free Kicks… Maybe Next, we could use Silly String to have the players tie their hands behind their Backs at Corner Kicks/FKs……**Paul, I think the Reason that you can’t find any Pre-tournament instructions to the Refs, is because at Least FIFA have gotten smart enough, not to have to Contradict themselves like they normal do with their usual “We will Protect the Creative Players and No Pushing in the Box, and Zero Tolerance for Blah, Blah, Blah”……**Messi has been tanking it at Barca, All Year, for this to be his Legacy World Cup…Hope it works out for him, Seems like a Nice Guy, Even though I am Pulling for Holland……**Robben has been the most Exciting Player, BUT HOW is it that a Player that has had Fitness and Physical Problems ALL his Life, has in the Last couple years in Germany been so Healthy???…East German Doctors Maybe???......**Holland wins 3-1 Over Argentina, Van Persie decides to Show Up… And Holland wins the WC on Penalties…(I Hope) …0-0 Boring as Hell Final, as they usually are…Hey, a Cruyff/Michels fan can have a Dream!!!

  20. Santiago 1314, July 10, 2014 at 10:43 a.m.

    Quote from Jurgen Klinsmann in article by Randy Harvey of the Houston Chronicle Sports..7/10/14 pgC1&3….”It makes them feel accountable, not just walk away with a bad performance and nothing happens,” he said. “If you have a bad performance, then people should approach you and tell you that, to make sure that next game is not bad anymore and you step it up.”… The Article is about the National Humiliation that Brazil feels and How (THE USA PLAYERS) don’t have that kind of pressure…***JURGEN*** FIRST, YOU Parked the Bus In-Front of the Goal(Didn’t BELIEVE USA Could Win)… THEN, YOU Re-Arranged the Chairs on the TITANIC(No Sub for Jozy)…and NOW, YOU are Throwing the Players OUT of the Bus, for the Dogs to Eat…<<< THROW YOURSELF OUT >>>…OH, but Knowing you, You will Take a Helicopter Ride Off the Top of the Bus, so you don’t have to face the Wolves…I was for Keeping You, Hoping you would Learn some Humility…But Asking for Fans to Accost the Players and Frighten them into Better Performance!?!?!?…WHAT AN ARROGANT, JERK, PRICK, You are !!!!...What a Hypocrite!!!…YOU Left Germany because YOU couldn’t take the Magnifying Glass that YOU were under and because YOU liked the anonymity that Athletes have in the USA… NOW YOU WANT TO HAVE THE FANS DO YOUR JOB !!!… <<<< Come on SUNIL… Enough is Enough…GET RID OF HIM!!!! >>>> THIS IS AMERICA!!! and WE BELIEVE WE CAN WIN and WE CAN DO IT OUR WAY… so PISS OFF back to Germany…Oh, They don’t want you their either…!!!... p.s. Van Persie was a NO SHOW, Didn't know he had the Flu

  21. Albert Harris, July 10, 2014 at 11:27 a.m.

    Seventh reading today of Santi's rant for those who had that number in the pool. Now giving up reading comments for the immediate future,,,lol

  22. Santiago 1314, July 10, 2014 at 10:18 p.m.

    Man, was it that Many??? Sorry, I was so Pissed when I read that this morning...But imagine the Columbian Coach telling the Fans to ask the Players "Why did you Score that Own Goal against the USA???" Oops, We know how that Turned Out...RIP Escobar...

  23. Leia Ambra, July 12, 2014 at 2:09 p.m.

    Irmatoff has stood out to me as one of the best refs who has an excellent eye. He did talk to Krul, and, yes, should have been stronger there. But the Brazil-Columbia game was clearly out of control. I can only think that the ref wanted to let the game 'flow' as happened with Brazil-Mexico, but that strategy clearly back fired.

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