Big names all get 'special' treatment

Neymar grimacing during training yesterday before hobbling out with a "painful right ankle". A spokesman for the Brazilian federation attributed the knock to the 10 fouls on the star forward during Sunday's 1-1 draw with Switzerland.
Neymar grimacing during training yesterday before hobbling out with a "painful right ankle". A spokesman for the Brazilian federation attributed the knock to the 10 fouls on the star forward during Sunday's 1-1 draw with Switzerland.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Neymar, Ronaldo, Messi and Hazard fouled repeatedly amid calls for greater protection

They clipped his heels, pulled his jersey, and slid right through him.

Switzerland players had only one target in mind last Sunday as Stephan Lichtsteiner, Fabian Schar and Valon Behrami were all booked for fouling Neymar in the 1-1 Group E draw.

The Swiss made 10 illegal stops on him alone (52.6 per cent of their total fouls), the most suffered by a Brazilian player in a World Cup match since 1966, when Bulgaria and Portugal's rough tactics led to the legendary Pele being kicked out of the tournament.

Neymar was also the most fouled player in a World Cup game in 20 years since England's Alan Shearer was fouled 11 times against Tunisia at the 1998 World Cup.

The repercussions could be costly as the 26-year-old hobbled out of a training session "with a painful right ankle" yesterday, setting alarm bells ringing in the Brazil camp as they prepare for their second group game against Costa Rica on Friday.

The Brazilian Football Confederation put the discomfort down to the fouls the forward received in the Switzerland match, and not the foot he fractured in February, an injury which required surgery.

Neymar is not the only star who is being targeted and hammered by opponents at this World Cup.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard all realised that they are not going to waltz past defenders at this World Cup.

To a certain extent, the roughhouse tactics of the lesser nations have worked at this early stage.

Even though Messi was fouled only three times, it accounted for 20 per cent of Iceland's total fouls as the frustrated talisman fired blanks in Argentina's 1-1 draw against the debutants.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo drew four fouls (40 per cent of Spain's total fouls), but managed to make the most of it, scoring from a penalty and free kick after he was tackled in the 3-3 draw with Spain.

Belgium's Hazard also shrugged off five challenges (27.8 per cent of Panama's total fouls) to provide an assist for Romelu Lukaku in the 3-0 win over Panama.

"Every team can prepare how they like, but the tackling concerns me," Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said of Panama's rugged style. "I wouldn't like to lose Hazard to a hard tackle on his ankle, I say it for him and all the great players here."

Former Republic of Ireland international Ray Houghton, who played at two World Cups and scored the winner against Italy in a group-stage match in 1994, agreed that players should be given more protection.

He told The Straits Times: "We don't want to see players missing games because of bad tackles.

"The World Cup should be about watching good football and the best players producing their best form. We want to encourage youngsters to be brave on the ball and make things happen, not talk about bad challenges."

Carlos Felgueiras e Sousa, an editor for the Radio and Television of Portugal, noted that such cynical tactics are the norm and it needs to be stopped to prevent games from losing its lustre and becoming more like wars of attrition.

He told ST: "Portugal won Euro 2016 with their defensive strategy, and Italy did this for years, too. Scoring early and protecting a result by hook or by crook have become common.

"To prevent serious injuries to the big players, the ones fans are most moved by, it is important for officials to protect them, but not any more than every other player. The hard fouls should be punished, sometimes even with red cards."

Former Singapore goalkeeping coach and English Premier League custodian John Burridge suggested making full use of the video assistant referee (VAR) to police such situations. As of now, the VAR can intervene only for goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity, and Burridge felt that these are insufficient.

He told ST: "This is what the VAR is there for - to spot what the officials cannot see. If they want to ensure fairness but don't use it to the limit, then bin it.

"When the hatchet men know there are 35 VAR cameras watching them all over the pitch, they will think twice about committing dirty tackles because they know they will be caught."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2018, with the headline 'Big names all get 'special' treatment'. Print Edition | Subscribe