RIO DE JANEIRO — Controversies have arisen in World Cups since a referee inadvertently blew the final whistle six minutes early during a match at the inaugural tournament in 1930, but the dramas of this year’s event — including a bizarre bite and a backbreaking tackle — have played out with a remarkable immediacy on social media.
Over the past month, players like Neymar, Luis Suárez and the U.S. reserve forward Chris Wondolowski have offered confessions, explanations, interpretations and amplifications using services like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.
“If they can jump online, say something, and see it traverse the world in real time, it makes life that much easier,” said Peter Shankman, a social-media consultant in New York.
Most recently, fans here and elsewhere have been fretting over an injury to Neymar, Brazil’s spindly star striker, who crumpled late in the second half of a quarterfinal match against Colombia after being kneed in the lower back.
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Screaming and crying, Neymar was taken off the field on a stretcher, and it was later revealed that he had a fractured vertebra. He will miss the rest of the tournament, where four teams remain from the original 32.
The player who kneed him, Juan Zúñiga, made only a fleeting comment or two as he rushed past members of the news media after the game. It did not take long for Zúñiga to begin receiving death threats and racist taunts from Brazilian fans on Twitter — one of the more printable comments was that Zúñiga was “the biggest villain in the history of football” — and he took to social media a day later to explain himself.
“There was no bad intention, malice or negligence on my part,” he wrote in a letter posted on his Facebook page. Zúñiga also addressed Neymar personally, telling him: “I admire you, respect you and consider you one of the best players in the world. I hope you recover and return quickly.”
Grainy footage circulated of Neymar being rushed into an emergency room, being comforted by teammates on an airport tarmac and being loaded on a gurney into a helicopter. He did not publicly engage with Zúñiga on social media, but he did address his nation of frothing fans directly.
In a YouTube video, Neymar — looking rakish in a sideways hat despite his temporary incapacitation — spoke emotionally about how his “dream has not ended yet” because his teammates could go on to win the World Cup without him. “Another dream of mine was to play in the World Cup final, but I won’t be able to do that now,” he added.
While some professional sports teams place limits on what their athletes should share on the Internet, the Brazilian players — even before Neymar’s medical journey became available for consumption — have not been shy. Instagram, in particular, is popular with the Brazilians, and pictures such as Dani Alves’ selfie with a milk bottle and David Luiz’s underwater homage to heavy-metal music have made fans feel that their beloved stars are accessible.
Neymar’s injury was hardly the only story to play out on the Web. When Suárez, a Uruguayan striker, sank his teeth into the left shoulder of Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during a group-stage game, theories about digitally enhanced pictures of the bite marks popped up on Twitter and elsewhere almost immediately. Suárez and Chiellini gave brief interviews after the game, but, as is often the case, the players took to social media to offer clarifications once the emotional level of the situation had calmed.
After FIFA, soccer’s governing body, announced a heavy punishment for Suárez that included a suspension from nine international games and a four-month ban from all soccer activities, Chiellini, who had initially called Suárez a “sneak,” took to his personal website to say that he felt for Suárez and his family and hoped that Suárez “will be allowed, at least, to stay close to his teammates during the games because such a ban is really alienating for a player.”
Suárez, who at first claimed that no bite had taken place, then emerged on social media with a Facebook post in which he apologized, somewhat, and said Chiellini had “suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision.”
That prompted Chiellini to post a reply to Suárez on Twitter in which he absolved his assailant and said, “It’s all forgotten.”
Perhaps no social-media post, though, had as much feeling as the one from Wondolowski, the U.S. forward, who missed a seemingly unmissable shot from close range in the Americans’ round of 16 game against Belgium. If Wondolowski had scored, the United States probably would have won; instead, his skewed shot went high and wide. The United States lost in extra time.
Wondolowski took to social media to say he was sorry to all American fans. There were no pictures or videos, just a moment of unreserved accountability.
“I’m gutted to have let down everyone,” he wrote, “but especially my teammates. It’s been an incredible ride, but I know this will make me stronger.”