Switzerland’s Stephan Lichtsteiner unhappy with Neymar and referee

• Brazil forward fouled 10 times during 1-1 draw in Rostov
• Lichtsteiner believes referee gave Brazil too many free-kicks

It was always likely to be a pivotal duel. Stephan Lichtsteiner against Neymar. The Switzerland captain and right-back versus Brazil’s quicksilver threat off the left. Beforehand, Lichtsteiner had described it as “practically impossible to neutralise Neymar completely over 90 minutes.” Afterwards he would suggest that the referee, Cesar Ramos, had a similarly difficult task.

Brazil cried conspiracy following the 1-1 Group E draw at the Rostov Arena, with their principal gripe being Ramos’s decision to overlook the slightest of nudges on Miranda by Stephen Zuber before the Swiss midfielder headed the equaliser. They also felt that Gabriel Jesus ought to have had a penalty following a 74th minute challenge by Manuel Akanji.

But another strand to the complaint related to the treatment of Neymar, who was fouled a remarkable 10 times. To Brazil, it was plain that their talisman had been targeted and, if none of the fouls were overtly dangerous, there was still a degree of cynicism to many of them. Neymar only returned from a three-month injury lay-off at the beginning of the month, having fractured a metatarsal playing for Paris Saint-Germain, and his fitness remains an issue. He walked gingerly out of the stadium on Sunday night.

Yet from the Switzerland point of view, there was a very different take on matters. According to Lichtsteiner, Ramos came to lose the ability to see anything other than fouls on Neymar and his team-mates when they went down and it made for a climate in which theatrics got their reward.

Lichtsteiner could have no complaints when he was booked on 32 minutes for pulling back Neymar, even if his opponent’s fall rather sealed the deal. But when he reflected on the game, it was plain the man who recently completed a free transfer from Juventus to Arsenal felt Neymar had mixed his impish class with play-acting.

“I was a little bit worried about the referee,” Lichtsteiner said. “Every time they fell down, it was a whistle, a foul. This was a bit of a challenge. You think: ‘Don’t be too aggressive because every time they go down, it’s a foul.’ For that I was a bit careful after my yellow card.”

Neymar drew the eye irresistibly and not only because of his flashy new hairstyle. He possesses the rare ability to create a buzz whenever he gets on the ball. Yet it was a mixed bag from him. As the team’s craque, the 26-year-old feels the pressure to go through his repertoire of tricks more than anyone; to bring the fantasy that the Brazil fans demand.

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Neymar’s signature move against Switzerland was the freeze-frame dribble, in which he paused and eyed his marker, daring him to jump in. At times, he stood still for what seemed like an age. The plan was for him to then blast away. It was incredibly impudent, blurring the line between cockiness and arrogance but at no point did it really come off.

Worse still, it served to kill Brazil’s tempo. There was the sense that it was not only the Swiss defenders who were waiting to see what Neymar would do but his own teammates, as well.

Neymar strutted about in the first-half, as he and Brazil called the tune but, after Zuber’s 50th-minute equaliser, there was a loss of focus for a period of 15 minutes or so. Yet Neymar would finish strongly and it was perhaps no coincidence that the burst coincided with greater urgency from him, increased directness.

“It’s very difficult to play against Neymar,” Lichtsteiner said. “He’s fast, he’s technical and you need to keep up with him all the time because he’s dangerous. It’s a big challenge.”

Switzerland rode their luck during the closing moments, when Brazil belatedly laid siege to their goal and created a fistful of chances. But Lichtsteiner and his teammates could feel that they got the balance right in the way they dealt with Neymar. As for the man himself, he was probably both target and thespian. It is a theme that promises to run and run at this World Cup, most likely with a few falls.


David Hytner in Rostov

The GuardianTramp

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