A little more than halfway through Brazil’s horrible, galling victory over Colombia last Friday, I began to wonder what type of foul might actually persuade the Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo to issue a yellow card: A studs-up, two-footed, kung-fu fly-kick to the chest, like the one launched by Eric Cantona against a fan in the stands back in 1995? Any one of the number of egregious fouls, including punches to the head, committed by Italy against Chile, and then by Chile on Italy, in the infamous Battle of Santiago in World Cup 1962? Maybe multiple Suárez-type bites by a hyena pack of players on a prostrate Colombian felled by a scything tackle might have done the trick.
As it was, Thiago Silva eventually received a yellow card for stupidly impeding the Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina as he was about to drop-kick the ball upfield (hardly a big deal); Mario Yepes received one for a tackle no worse than countless that had preceded it; Júlio César received one for understandably wiping out Carlos Bacca on his way to a goal that resulted in a penalty for Colombia; and, cruelest of all, the superb James Rodríguez—who, throughout the tournament, embodied all the skill, verve, and fluidity that’s supposed to be the hallmark of Brazilian soccer, including the ability to smack the ball sweetly into the back of the net—received a yellow card for a tackle he had half pulled out of, his first offense. Then, from the ensuing free kick, David Luiz scored what turned out to be the winning goal for Brazil—an even greater injustice, as Rodríguez had been targeted and pummeled, mostly by Fernandinho, more or less from the opening whistle. As Sam Borden observed in an excellent article in the Times, it is all very well for Luiz Scolari, Brazil’s coach, to claim that Neymar had been “hunted” after Juan Camilo Zuniga had kneed his star player in the back and broken his vertebra—no yellow card—but it was his team, under his direction, that had set the tone. Brazil has lost its reputation and doesn’t look likely to recover it in a hurry.
Meanwhile, Louis van Gaal may soon be challenging Nate Silver for sure-thing statistical predictions. Aware that his reserve goalkeeper, Tim Krul, had a longer reach than his first-choice goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, he subbed in Krul with seconds to go in the 121st minute of the game against Costa Rica, and Krul dutifully stretched his arms to save two penalties in the ensuing shoot-out.
And so the last of the little guys have been eliminated from the competition: Belgium, the smallest country; Costa Rica, population 4.5 million; and Colombia, the perennial South American also-ran who had never reached a quarterfinal before. France went out, too, but they haven’t been the same since the Zidane head-butt. And what are we left with? Teams that rely significantly on bullies (Fernandinho et al, Brazil), on divers and fakers (Robben of Holland, Müller of Germany) or, grâce à Dieu, on the soccer genius of Lionel Messi (Argentina).
In the 1966 World Cup, Pele was infamously brutalized, and as a result Brazil didn’t make it out of the group stage; Maradona, on a Faustian journey to reactivate the skills that time had dulled, tarnished his reputation by removing himself from World Cup 1994 with an ephedrine cocktail. But somehow I don’t think that Messi, with his low center of gravity, will be kicked in the air by either Holland or Brazil—should the hosts reach the final—nor does he require a pick-me-up from the pharmacy. For the sake of all those who love the jogo bonito, may the golden boot go to Messi. There’s only been one hat trick ever scored in a World Cup final, by England’s Geoff Hurst in 1966; if whoever referees the final can locate his whistle and his cards, we might yet see something extraordinary on July 13.
Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He is the author of eight books, including Kick and Run: Memoir with Soccer Ball. He lives in Massachusetts.