In the opening match of Group E, in World Cup 2018 in Russia, Brazilian star Neymar was fouled incessantly by the Swiss team. It took six different fouls by four different players for the ref, Mexican Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos, to issue his first yellow. But by then enough damage had been done in 20 minutes for the Brazilian to remain tentative for the rest of the match, not wanting to risk his surgically repaired right foot in his first competitive return without fair officiating support.
Unfortunately, the ref, who seemed to be on top of the match at that point, figured he had done enough. It was not until another seven fouls, some blatant and overly physical, ensued before the next yellow cooled the pace but not the continuity of the infractions.
By Papa’s count, at game’s end, Neymar had been fouled 19 times, by eight different players (subs for some who had previously fouled him joined in the count) and had been basically rendered ineffectual in the match. One only wonders how many matches have ever featured 19 fouls against the likes of Lionel Messi and still ended with an 11 X 11 on the pitch. Let us all hope this is not a harbinger of officiating to come.
The fouls aside, and they should not be forgotten less this be another tourney where the officiating decides the winner, Brazil got the draw they deserved. The Swiss managed the game after the Brazilians pulled ahead early and the South Americans never really seemed to get out of second gear the entire match. Tite will have to hold some major conversations with his guys if they are to continue wearing the mantle of cup favorites.
Today, Brazil looked no better than several others of the pre-tournament favorites, the likes of Argentina who bowed 1-1 to Iceland, or the German side who lost 0-1 to Mexico, or the French team who barely won 2-1 over Australia. At this stage Spain, Portugal, and Croatia, are the only teams to have played their games, at their expected potential levels, and done so successfully.
This will now necessarily be a cup that takes off in the next round for many of those early front runners. Once all groups have completed their first couple of games the teams who realize they will have to come out and compete will be the ones left standing come the knockout stage. Look for a different level of intensity and initiative from here on in.