Did you see the play? The Colombian defender dug his knee into Neymar’s back and pushed off with his hand on the back of Neymar’s neck to launch his challenge from behind. Poor Neymar never saw him coming. His attention was focused on bringing the ball in front of him under control.
This foul, following a pattern of aggressive fouls dealt by both the Colombians and Brazilians, was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. Literally. A “minor” infringement, given the tone of the game as it had been let play on by Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo. A whistle awarded a free kick. No action taken.
Zuniga has issued an apology, saying he did not intend harm. Watching and re-watching the slo-mo of the play, I am not sure he did. He was simply following the new rules of soccer which are play to the limit of what you can get away with. Carballo had been letting them get away with a lot. And just like children, if you don’t discipline early, penalties later do not stem the tide of mis-deeds.
I am seeing some alarming trends in our “beautiful” game:
- players using other players to elevate themselves to a ball in the air
- players treating balls in the air as “diving header” opportunities to compensate for not being in position to play it fairly
- players bending behind an opponent fielding a ball in the air to upend him on landing
This is all in addition to the reckless and aggressive play which is run-of-the-mill: tripping, spearing, throwing to the ground and the rest. When you add to this the intentional diving and rolling and theatrics designed to draw the foul, you have a game headed south in a hurry.
Where to begin?
First and foremost, any tackle from behind must be carded. Big match, small match, accumulation of cards not withstanding. The Zuniga foul on Neymar is a perfect example of what can happen when a player has no opportunity to prepare for an incoming tackle. Blind-sided. A sucker punch delivered with a knee which would reflexively cause him to extend his spine. The hand to the neck at the level of the 3rd vertebrae is just the icing on the cake. No chance.
Down he goes. And a nation mourns.
Do we really believe that our “target players” should be targets for this kind of play? FIFA must dispense consequences so severe that players will avoid considering it. Otherwise, the game becomes war, and everyone loses.
Interestingly, while taking a break from World War III, I mean World Cup play, I stumbled on a great video of a game that is much newer than futbol, Ultimate Frisbee.
Not your backyard game, Ultimate was just recognized as an official sport by the US Olympic Committee, and this week twenty four teams from around the world are competing for the US Open championship.
Many of the competitors are refugees from the traditional sports which have gotten out of hand. Amazingly, Ultimate Frisbee (or Ultimate, is it’s called by its proponents) is competed without a referee. The game is competed honorably, without a striped shirt. Just imagine, a game that can be competed fairly by talented athletes with no fights, no vicious fouls, not even any pads or helmets.
Neymar, heal well and heal quickly. Your team and the game need you.
In the mean time, FIFA, can we take our cue from some guys playing a game with a round piece of plastic? We don’t need referees to control our games when everyone agrees on the rules and has a stake in enforcing them. That’s Ultimately #forthewin.