RIO DE JANEIRO – This was always going to be a World Cup that tested the resolve. The participating players (not to mention the visiting fans) faced taxing travel and climates, while the locals wrestled with the collision between their love for the Seleção and their frustration with the government and FIFA.
On Saturday morning, Brazil awoke to a test it never anticipated. Neymar, the charismatic, ultra-talented forward who carried the country’s Hexa hopes (a sixth title), would miss the remainder of the competition with a fractured vertebra. The celebration that followed Friday’s 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Colombia had been tempered moments later, but sober reality set in on Saturday.
As images of the 22-year-old star being airlifted from Brazil’s training center in Teresópolis competed with the buildup to the Argentina-Belgium quarterfinal, and as fans in Brasilia chanted Neymar’s name during that game, it became clear that the nightmare was real. Where there had been immense pressure and expectation – this was the World Cup that Brazil had to win – now there was indignation and determination.
If Saturday’s newspapers were any sign, the country understands the coveted sixth star will be harder to earn. But it’s not out of reach. Neymar has evolved from creator to martyr. And even if he can’t inspire in the same way, the anger toward Colombian hit man Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo – whose permissiveness paved the way for thuggery on both sides – may compensate.
“Uma pancada no Brasil" -- “A blow to Brazil” -- trumpeted O Globo, the country’s most prominent national newspaper. It featured a photo of Neymar in agony splashed across its front page like nearly all of its competitors. Pancada doesn’t mean ‘knockout.” Brazil is staggered but still standing.
Naturally, Zúñiga was a target. O Dia called him a “Colombiano Maldito” – a Colombian with bad intention – for his 88th-minute knee to the back of the Brazilian star. Zúñiga, who plays his club football for Napoli, issued a statement on Saturday that said, in part, “Although I feel the situation was normal in a game, there was no bad intention, malice or negligence on my part.” He added that he admired Neymar and considered him “one of the best players in the world.”
Nevertheless, the Brazilian papers labeled the challenge “violent,” “foul play,” “cowardice” and even “criminal." It certainly was unnecessary, but in a game so rough and poorly controlled it may have been inevitable. Brazil was whistled for a very un-jogo-bonito-like 31 fouls (compared to Colombia’s 23) and several appeared to target Los Cafeteros star James Rodríguez. Neutrals might feel sympathy for Neymar, but that shouldn’t necessarily extend to his teammates, who will face Germany on July 8 for a spot in the final.
The message to those remaining players – do it for Neymar. The legendary Pelé reminded his Twitter followers that Brazil carried on after his injury in the second match of the 1962 World Cup and won the title with wins over England, the host Chileans and Czechoslovakia.
“I was also injured during the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and I was out for the rest of the tournament, but God helped Brazil continue on to win the Championship. I hope the same will happen with our Seleção in this World Cup,” Pelé wrote.
That 1962 squad also featured attacking superstars like Garrincha and Vavá, the first player to score in two World Cup title games. A big reason the spotlight shone so brightly on Neymar here in Brazil is because there’s considerable doubt about whether the 2014 team offers anything similar. Nearly everything went through Neymar, who scored four goals. Oscar, from Chelsea, likely will become the offensive focal point, but there’s deserved doubt about whether the likes of Fred and Hulk can bear any additional burden.
“It’s very sad. It’s sad, because only we know how much that lad dreamed about this World Cup,” said Brazil captain Thiago Silva, who will be suspended for the semifinal. “Even so, I’m certain that we’ve got quality players who can fill in for him. I’ve got a lot of faith in Willian [from Chelsea], who’s got similar characteristics. We’re going to win this World Cup. Not just for Neymar, but for all of us. We deserve it.”
Saturday’s papers urged the team to get behind its fallen star.
“Jogue Por Ele” – “Play For Him” – implored Lance!, while O Dia said, “Vamos Sem Ele … E Por Ele” – “Going Without Him … For Him.”
Brazil has been anything but convincing at this tournament. It was tested by Croatia in the opener and pulled ahead thanks to a controversial penalty kick, then failed to solve Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa five days later. Chile took Brazil to an emotional penalty kick shootout in the round of 16 – the tears from some of the victorious players revealed just how much the Hexa means – and Colombia was no easy out. Now, without its star, Brazil’s prospects have diminished. For the expectant and eager home fans, there’s hope his injury is a wake-up call.
A Lance! cartoonist drew a yellow bird – Brazil is nicknamed Canarinho (canary) for the color of its jerseys – drinking from a mug featuring the Colombian flag.
“This coffee is hot and bitter,” the canary says. “It’s good that I’m now awake!”
Neymar's absence: What it means for Brazil and the World Cup
Grant Wahl explains the massive void that Neymar's injury has left in the team and the country as a whole.