The mark of a good fix is plausible deniability.
With that in mind, FIFA gave Brazil a light tap across the back of the hands on Monday. Not so much a “Don’t do that” slap as a “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you later.”
First, Brazil applied for a reconsideration of captain Thiago Silva’s yellow card for running over Colombia’s goalkeeper in their quarter-final game. As a result of that blatant numbskullery, Silva is suspended for Tuesday’s semi-final.
No such appeal had ever been considered at a modern World Cup, much less granted. You’d like to say fair play to Brazil for trying, but it wouldn’t be true. It isn’t fair play. It’s a gross attempt at manipulating the rules, and it has worked before.
In the 1962 World Cup, Brazil’s brightest star of that tournament, Garrincha, was red-carded in the semis. His automatic suspension was quietly overturned – likely at the backroom behest of the then-head of Brazilian football and future FIFA boss Joao Havelange. Garrincha played in the final. Brazil won.
That set a pattern that would carry forward in future decades. FIFA has more than 200 children, but Brazil is her favourite.
Brazil was also behind a half-hearted reconsideration of Juan Zuniga’s foul on Neymar late in that same quarter-final, the one that broke the Brazilian star’s vertebra.
In recent days, the local temperature around that incident has been stoked hotter than the surface of the sun. Replays of the incident were in heavier rotation than the Zapruder film. When Neymar appeared on a Globo talk show via satellite, the host burst into tears.
Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari accused the Colombians of “hunting” Neymar. The country’s chief footballing simpleton, Ronaldo, said darkly, “I do believe there was some intention to harm.”
What exactly Brazil expected out of an investigation is a mystery. A suspension for a player already out of the tournament? And that would achieve what, exactly?
The injury was serious, but the foul – one player going through another for a ball in the air – was garden variety. It happens a half-dozen times in every game. It was no worse than what Brazil’s midfield enforcers had done all evening long to Colombia’s James Rodriguez, with less onerous results.
If Zuniga’s foul ever becomes a suspendable offence, get ready for the open-field thrills of seven-a-side soccer.
On Monday afternoon, FIFA denied both appeals. In both instances, it was made clear that no investigative process had been undertaken. Instead, FIFA declined to consider either. This was all done in the same press release.
From one perspective, it defused a few million tin-foil-hat conspiracists. From another, FIFA gave itself enough cover to paper over the many ways in which Brazil has been helped along here.
The hosts’ choppy run has been bookended by two egregious refereeing performances, each of which helped push them through.
The decision of Japan’s Yuichi Nishimura to award a key penalty in the opener invited global scorn. It was almost certainly the result of nerves, but it would still be wrong to forgive that sort of folding under pressure.
That was small beer compared to the mind-boggling showing of Carlos Velasco Carballo in the quarters. Back home in La Liga, Velasco Carballo has the reputation of a man who doesn’t brook any shenanigans. Here in Brazil, he morphed into the guy in charge of a cockfight. Short of eye gouging, anything went in that game against Colombia. The result was a brutal tempo that heavily favoured Brazil.
There was an ugly karma to the fact that Velasco Carballo’s permissiveness led directly to the kung-fu-fighting tackling style that resulted in Neymar’s injury. If Brazil wants to blame anybody, they should be blaming the man in charge.
Diego Maradona isn’t right about much any more, but he was correct in calling the Spanish referee’s performance “the worst I’ve seen in 10 years.”
Nonetheless, both Nishimura and Velasco Carballo were named on Monday to the shortlist of officials in contention to officiate the four remaining games.
Neither will get a Brazil game – that would be too bold – but the fact they were shortlisted equals tacit approval of their performances.
They did what FIFA expected – bent backward to help the tournament’s chosen side.
Lest that message be lost on anyone, FIFA has bizarrely appointed Mexico’s Marco Rodriguez to officiate Tuesday’s Brazil-Germany semi-final.
Rodriguez was another of the handful of men who fell face-first into this World Cup. He’s the one who (totally incorrectly) red-carded Claudio Marchisio in the Italy-Uruguay Round of 16 game, then missed Luis Suarez helping himself to a bit of Giorgio Chiellini. On the scale of screw-ups, it was somewhere between Nishimura and Velasco Carballo.
There are several world-class refs with reputations still fully intact who could’ve taken the most pivotal game yet – Italy’s Nicola Rizzoli and Uzbekistan’s Ravshan Irmatov prime among them. Why not pick one of those two?
It isn’t regionalism (though that’s the excuse that will be used). It’s because Marco Rodriguez is already compromised.
While no one will say it out loud – that would be the surest way to ruin a fix – he understands what’s expected of him. He can’t give Brazil the game. But if it comes down to a 50/50 call or three, he knows what to do.
And if he does it FIFA’s way, the manner in which Nishimura and Velasco Carballo have been treated assures him that he will be backed, no matter what.
That’s how you throw a tournament – by laying down just enough diversionary smoke that you can pull the heist in plain sight.