Born to Be Bad

$243,000 wasted in a second. Don’t drink and drive.

We’ve all expected it to be more than it actually turned out to be. So many top-class stars were destined to clash against each other – and this was supposed to be a foundation for a great tournament. The list doesn’t seem to end: Neymar, Alves and Mascherano have just won the treble with Barcelona; Vidal, Pereyra and Tevez captured one more Scudetto and featured in a Champions League final; Alexis Sanchez carried Arsenal to yet another moderate success in Premier League; Salomon Rondón and Carlos Bacca had seasons so amazing, the top European clubs began the chase for their signatures; Edinson Cavani used Zlatan Ibrahimović’s injury trouble to prove that he’s at the absolute top of Ligue 1’s strikers… Yeah, it looked wonderful on paper. The main theme was supposed to be Chile’s ambition to win their first-ever Copa America on their home soil. Surely at least this fairy tale could not disappoint?

Fast-forward few weeks, nearly all these speculations are invalid. The Chilean dream remains alive, but bot without several deep cuts on the team’s reputation. Brazilians, the usual force capable of producing good games, are out after an ugly penalty shootout against Paraguay that saw Bayern’s target Douglas Costa missing a critical spot-kick. Tevez and Pereyra are only bench-warmers for Argentina; Rondón scored one match-winner against Colombia but it wasn’t enough for Venezuela to advance from Group C. And, most importantly, Vidal, Bacca, Neymar and Cavani were all involved in ridiculous, disgusting incidents that accidentally revealed the dark sides of their egos – as well as the dark sides of South American international football itself. In the end, it’s their weird adventures, not football, that dominated the news reports during this tournament; and they should dominate in this post too.

The place was a lost highway somewhere at the suburbs of Chile’s capital, Santiago. The time: Late night of June 16th 2015. The characters: Arturo Vidal, his beautiful wife Maria Teresa Matus and bunch of Chilean cops arriving to the scene of events. 24 hours after putting an impressive show against Mexicans in a crucial Group A match, Juventus’ leader was seen gambling in a casino 25 kilometres from Santiago’s downtown. Afterwards, Vidal and his wife jumped into his Ferrari 458 Italia covered with rosso-corsa varnish and drove back to the capital. As it turned out soon, the player really did enjoy the spare time given to him by his head coach Jorge Sampaoli: at the time, he reportedly had 0.12% of alcohol in blood. Vidal’s Ferrari reportedly hit another car and then crashed into a barrier, getting badly damaged and inflicting minor injuries on player and his wife.

But it was just the beginning. Vidal, soon to be found guilty of driving under the influence, has been arrested and spent several hours at the police station. In the meantime, he managed to insult the officers that took him to the custody. Then, followed two enigmatic messages posted on his Twitter account, that admitted the participation in the accident and thanked all concerned fans. And finally, the press conference on Wednesday. Calmed down and sober, the offender admitted his fault and apologized to his teammates, his manager and 17 million of Chileans, who watched his tearful meltdown waiting for whatever was going to happen next. The ramifications seemed clear and simple: an immediate suspension from playing in Chilean National Team as well as a trial and a likely prison sentence – a sentence that, according to Chilean law, should cost him at least 541 days in jail.

Alas, nothing of that kind happened. In an outrageous, but hardly surprising public retort, Sampaoli played down his midfielder’s screw-up, stating that “he made a mistake” and “we [the team] shouldn’t exclude him for it”. The manager was soon backed up by Chile’s second world-class star, winger Alexis Sanchez: “All the players were with him. (…) we are a family and we are there to support him.”. Subsequently, no ban was issued and no reports of an impending trial was released. Three days after the accident and two days after tear-jerking press conference, Vidal was directly involved in Chile’s spectacular 5-0 win over Bolivia, spending 45 minutes on the pitch before he was subbed off during the halftime. His team has won the Group A handily, making a leap to the knockout stage and keeping Chilean hopes alive. Remarkably, this nation has never won the trophy they are now challenging for!

And there is the explanation of Arturo’s good fortune. A nation starved of international success for 99 years, a nation that embarrassingly lost to Venezuela in the CA quarterfinals four years ago – such nation is much more willing to forgive. As it turns out, when the main offender is an indispensable part of the team, the national credit of forgiveness applies even to the case of lying (prior to his apologies, Vidal issued a video to the fans, stating that the crash was not his fault) and the case of recurrence (in 2011, Vidal was a part of five-player group that attended Jorge Valdivia’s daughter’s baptism and subsequently showed up drunk to the National Team’s camp). Ironically, the player’s quote “Go ahead and handcuff me, but you’re going to shit all over Chile.”, issued towards the cops turned out to be true. At the moment, he is way too precious for the country to suspend him.

Juventus’ star had one more reason to feel lucky the day after his crash. The match between Brazil and Colombia was bound to steal some spotlight from his drunken case, but few people predicted how strangely that game will unfold. After scraping a hard-fought goal in the first half, the Colombians got repeatedly exposed at the back and only mad luck combined with David Ospina’s reflexes kept them in the lead. Neymar alone wasted at least three golden opportunities to level the score, misheading one cross from Dani Alves, missing an open-goal chance created by a horrific backpass from Colombian defenders and finishing one more great run with possibly the worst-aimed shot of his career. It was supposed to be his retribution; his revenge for the World Cup 2014, where he suffered a painful injury from the hands – or rather, legs – of Juan Zúñiga.

It wasn’t. Though a draw might’ve been more accurate representation of what happened, Brazil lost and Neymar grew more and more frustrated with every single minute of the second half. Eventually, seconds after the referee Enrique Osses blew for the full time, Barcelona’s winger fired a completely unnecessary, childish shot right into Pablo Armero’s back. Colombians were quick to react and the first one who taught the Brazilian star some manners was Carlos Bacca, who violently pushed Neymar back. After a brief headbutt from the Brazilian on Jelson Murillo, followed by not-so-brief brawl involving bunch of players from both teams, the red cards had to be issued. Mr Osses reacted appropriately, sending off both forwards involved in the incident, while more experienced players, like Dani Alves or Edwin Valencia attempted to stop the escalation of the chimpout.

This time around, there was no leniency for the sinner. Apparently, players are allowed to make stupid and potentially dangerous decisions outside the pitch, but if the disgraceful behaviour radiates on the game of football itself – only then they face the consequences of their screw-ups. Neymar’s misconduct was obviously shameful for him, but it was also totally harmless – unlike Vidal’s actions the other night, that might’ve easily led to someone’s death. Alas, the Brazilian has earned himself a four-game Copa America ban, effectively ending his participation in the event and leading him to pack the bags for an early return flight to Spain. CBF never defended him. Head coach Dunga never really did either, giving the press only few enigmatic words. It was as if Canarinhos did not remember how costly it was for them when Neymar was absent from the World Cup semifinal…

So why exactly they’ve reacted like this? First of all, speculations were made about what happened in the tunnel immediately after the game. According to the referee and some sensation-seeking journalists, Neymar insulted Mr Osses, yelling at him: “You want to make yourself famous at my expense, you son of a bitch!”. This seems cinematic enough to make a good story, but is too far-fetched to be believable. According to the player, he simply asked why he was sent off and was quickly pushed aside by one of the security guards, who misread his behaviour as a sign of aggression towards the referee. If the first version of the events was true, both harshness of the ban and the reaction of Brazilian Federation would’ve been justified. But I doubt it. Right now, Neymar’s case looks more like a message sent to the players by CA’s disciplinary committee. Zero tolerance for brawls. Period.

As it turned out, this message hardly scared anyone. FSV Mainz’s and Chile defender, Gonzalo Jara was amongst the least concerned by the potential disciplinary sanctions he could face for breaching the laws of the game. Alas, the way he did it raised everyone’s eyebrows. Instead of traditional punching, elbowing, insulting other players’ mothers or discreet shirt-pulling, he put his two fingers straight at Cavani’s butt. It was July 25th, another hard-fought game of football in Santiago and Jara, who nobody would suspect of having homoerotic desires, most likely looked for a sneaky way to provoke his opponent into an violent outburst. PSG striker did not disappoint him. After being gently touched on his chin, Jara went down as if he was shot and the referee, obviously not fully reading into the context of the incident, has quickly ordered the actual victim to make his way back into the dressing room.

Prostate exam without rubber gloves. Pretty gross.

Coincidentally, only because I’m a football fan from Poland, I can’t emulate the rest of the world and say that I see this method of fouling for the first time. From my point of view, the man who has set an indecent example here was former Lech Poznań’s centre-back, Manuel Arboleda. The Colombian, who used to be one of the candidates to receive Polish citizenship and play for Polish National Team, was widely known for his dirty, outfield tactics. In April 2011, those were his fingers that provoked Polish starlet Ebi Smolarek to retaliate with a boxing-like punch. Arboleda, mostly known for being the least likeable player in Polish Ekstraklasa for many years, was also a master of pinching, scratching and taunting his rivals away from the referee’s sight – some players even suggested that he used little needles hidden in his shorts! Thankfully, in the end, he never really got to play for Poland…

I wanted this post to be about the goals and football tricks. If that wasn’t possible, I wanted it to be at least about solid pieces of hard work the South American players put on the pitch to get good results. I really wanted to write about genius displays of skill and not about this crap. Sadly, the ratio of outstanding games to outrageous incidents is currently 1/3, with Mexico vs Chile being the only match we’re going to remember for it’s football-related events. And, given the style Peru, Argentina, Chile and Paraguay used to advance to the semifinals, we all can expect more dirty play and less excellence in the few days to come. The reason is trivial – exhaustion. Even with the best backroom staff, you can’t cheat the physical limits of human body. The heroes really are running on their last legs – and, in their absence, it’s shady characters, who stand out.

With the title at stake, my bet is that they’ll continue to enrage us.

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