Knocking down Neymar

As Colombian defender Juan Zuniga rammed his right knee into the back of Neymar on Friday night at Fortaleza, a shiver ran up the spines of many a football fan who prefers to see the game as a form of art.

The brutal foul, unnoticed by the referee or his assistants, ended the World Cup for one of the most prominent purveyors of the Beautiful Game. A rare breed they are – almost hunted to the point of extinction by defenders who follow a simple method the world over -- knock down the man if you can’t knock away the ball.

In this World Cup quarterfinal game, the Colombian defender stayed true to that philosophy as he knocked over one man on whose shoulders the host nation had placed its entire hopes.

Neymar, indeed, is a special player. An artist who stands out in a group of largely artisans. A man who follows in a great lineage of skilful players from a country once known for the poetry its footballers scripted on the pitch.

That is all in the past.

Slowly but certainly, Brazil’s links to the Beautiful Game has snapped one by one. Winning at any cost is the motto these days, a far cry from the ways professed by Socrates, one of Brazil’s past masters, a man who stood out in one of the finest teams ever to grace the World Cup.

“Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy,” he had famously proclaimed once.

“Victory is the ultimate. Beauty can wait. As for joy, winning brings it after all,” could well be the slogan of  Brazil’s current coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. To be fair to Scolari, he can only work with the players he has at its disposal. And looking at the current group, Brazil has moved light years away from the path treaded by Socrates, or by Pele, the greatest of them all.

Experts commenting on the Brazil-Colombia game have pointed out that the hosts had dug their own grave by adopting a deliberate rough approach in an attempt to unsettle the Colombians early in the game. Indeed, the Brazilians chose Colombia’s midfield general James Rodrigues for special treatment, hacking him down at every opportunity. The referee looked the other way and naturally, frustration mounted in the Colombian ranks. Zuniga’s foul was an incident waiting to happen.

No excuses though for his raised knee that cut short Neymar’s dreams. “I was only defending my shirt, defending my country,” said Zuniga later, as if he were a soldier patrolling the borders of his nation. Many of his predecessors, donning the defender’s role in their teams around the world, would have trotted out similar reasons after delivering crunching blows to the shins, ankles, knees or heads of their opponents.

Looking back, the game is replete with tales of desperadoes in defenders’ shirts trying to turn it their way through unfair means. Diego Maradona will still rage and rant if you happen to utter the name Andoni Goikoetxea, better known as the Butcher of Bilbao. In his time, Pele was a victim of some of the most vicious tackles seen on a football pitch. So much so, the disgusted Brazilian even declared he would never play in a World Cup after he was kicked mercilessly in the 1966 tournament.

Of course, he was no saint, and Pele could give it back as well, though perhaps not in the same coin. Maradona was a street-smart player and he devised ways to evade the crude methods of his opponents after a demoralising World Cup debut in 1982, when a red card in the game against Brazil ended his tournament.

Maradona’s genius guided him past the lunging boots of his rivals at the 1986 World Cup, a tournament that saw the Argentine in full bloom. His successor in the sky blue shirt, Lionel Messi, seems to have taken a leaf out of his great country-mate’s books going by his performances so far in Brazil. Defenders are after him too but the Argentine captain has largely stayed away from those vicious studs, setting up chances for his mates and also scoring despite remaining silent for the better part of the matches.

When he returns from injury, Neymar would do well to imbibe the lessons from his experienced counterparts who journeyed up the artistic lane. Of course, no one can halt the cowards who attack from behind but swerving out of harm’s way, slithering past those cruelly laid traps should become child’s play when experience casts its protective shield.

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