Loss of Neymar mars Brazil's win
Brazil are through to the semifinals of the World Cup, but Neymar will not be joining them. Instead, he'll be strapped up and left to watch on television as his fractured vertebra slowly heals.
That he will languish indoors rather than light up the pitch is directly the fault of Juan Zuniga, who crashed into him with a knee raised and an arm outstretched, more intent on battering the Brazilian than winning an unwinnable ball. It was a roughhouse challenge, designed to intimidate, and it has robbed the World Cup of one of its biggest stars. That, indirectly, is the fault of referee Carlos Velasco Carballo.
Criticising officials for missing or misreading individual events is always mean-spirited. Referees have one real-time chance to quickly rule on incidents that tend to divide pundits even after a series of slow-motion replays. But criticising officials for the way in which they manage the game is entirely fair, especially when they do it as poorly as Carballo did. This game had 54 fouls, the most of any World Cup match this summer. To wait more than an hour to issue the first of just four bookings sent a clear message to the players: "Do what you want, lads. Just pretend I'm not here."
There were countless occasions for Carballo to lay down the law and try to calm people, but he eschewed all of them for the 64 minutes before he decided Thiago Silva's attempt to block the punt of goalkeeper David Ospina was more serious than the repeated and increasingly dangerous physical fouls by players from both teams.
Three minutes later, another name went in the book, but this time it was James Rodriguez, cautioned for a late slide that he knew he'd mistimed and from which he actually tried to extricate himself. Rodriguez, by this point, had already been kicked in the air numerous times without seeing any of his tormentors cautioned. When the card came out for him, he could only laugh in Carballo's face.
But no one was laughing when Neymar was felled; anyone who's ever taken a knee in the back like that will know how painful it is, even if nothing is fractured. Brazil themselves had been fouling Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado all night -- six times each, in fact. The game became an ugly, self-defeating arms race that a decent referee would have snuffed out in the first half before it got out of hand.
You don't expect referees to get every decision right, but you do expect them to run games in a manner that ensures the safety of the players. Carballo failed, and Brazil paid a heavy price.
This blog would never get up and stand in the way of the invention and vision of better, braver men than its writer -- especially not when the sofa is this comfortable -- but Joachim Low has been a little too clever for his own good of late. Centre-backs as full-backs, full-backs as midfielders, midfielders as strikers. It's daring, certainly; impetuous, indeed -- but it's not particularly effective.
Low's decision to move Philipp Lahm, the world's best right-back, to right-back seemed to finally give Germany the balance they needed, and he was rewarded with a 1-0 win over France. Miroslav Klose, a centre-forward, played up front. Thomas Muller, a midfielder, played in midfield. It was all a bit disconcertingly mainstream, like Arcade Fire suddenly releasing an album of cheesy Christmas classics. But it worked (and Arcade Fire can have that idea for free).
Admittedly, Germany were aided and abetted by a French display that lacked composure at both ends and character in the middle, suffered from repeated individual errors, and lacked urgency and intensity throughout. But that aside, it was fine. Didier Deschamps lamented a lack of tournament experience, which was a fair point, though you wonder how much experience a footballer needs to remember to play well in important games.
Germany, however, couldn't care less. Despite the effects of a flu bug that ravaged the squad this week, they have reached the last four of a tournament for the fifth successive time. Low might not have won anything yet, but he has consistently put Germany in a position in which they could, something that would have seemed absurdly positive after Germany's abysmal showing at Euro 2004.
Seriously, what was that on James Rodriguez's arm? Don't say it was a grasshopper because grasshoppers are about the size of a crayon -- they don't cover the entirety of a grown man's upper arm, and they certainly don't look as if they're latched on with hooks and are happily draining the human of his nutrients. If that thing was a grasshopper, it was the Optimus Prime of grasshoppers.
Frankly, we're amazed Rodriguez didn't take one look, scream and then chop his own arm off just to get away from it. Jealously reading the excellent dispatches of its colleagues, this blog has occasionally wished it too were based in Brazil for the summer. Not anymore. Not if Brazil is full of those things.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.