Neymar's injury hurts Brazil, World Cup
FORTALEZA, Brazil -- Hindsight can make anything seem fatalistic, but it is impossible not to think back just a couple of days.
In an attempt to bring calm to a turbulent week of preparations for the quarterfinal versus Colombia, the Brazilian Football Confederation press department unveiled Neymar for a news conference in their Teresopolis training camp. It was manna from heaven for over 300 journalists from all over the planet, and he didn't let people down, especially when playing down the pressure to perform by saying he was having the time of his life.
"I have dreamed for 12 years of the chance to play in a World Cup for Brazil, and now that I am, why should I be afraid instead of enjoying it?" he asked.
Thanks to a seemingly cowardly challenge by Juan Camillo Zuñiga, Neymar's dream was ended Friday night on the Castelao pitch. Floored after being whacked on the back by the Colombian defender's right knee, the Barcelona forward suffered a broken vertebra; although it is not career threatening, the injury is bad enough to keep him out of the tournament on which the Brazilian desperately wanted to leave his mark.
It will surely be heartbreaking news for every Brazilian remotely interested in football, but nobody else will be as down and out as the 22-year-old. Fearless on the pitch, he had been more than Brazil's top scorer in the tournament and their biggest hero since 2010. He was their hope of doing the unexpected in edging the Seleção ahead of the competition.
It's true that Lionel Messi has delivered much more regularly for Argentina in this World Cup, literally bailing out the Albiceleste in every single one of their four games so far. But Messi is the owner of four Ballon d'Or trophies and was never under the same pressure to deliver when he debuted for Argentina in Germany 2006. Neymar, on the other hand, is making his World Cup debut at home and was singled out as the player to lead by example. That he didn't freak out and hide was already remarkable; to have hit the ground running from Game 1 as he did is the stuff of dreams.
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It's easy to forget that Neymar has only just completed his first season in Europe. Surrounded by teammates with much more mileage and experience, he looked much older and wiser with the Selecao. When striker Fred said in an interview that the team were ready to "throw the ball to him and expect great things," it was no joke.
This kid has been such a breath of fresh air in Brazilian football that public opinion demanded his inclusion in Brazil's 2010 World Cup squad only for then-manager Dunga to rule it out. Ironically, Neymar popped up every once in a while in South African stadiums thanks to his TV commercial for one of the tournament sponsors, who aired a piece in which the teenager juggled a football alongside Santos FC teammate Robinho, who was actually a Seleção player in that World Cup.
Smiling and frequently attempting some outrageous dribble, the striker quickly formed a substantial fan club, helped by a scoring tally that would automatically be compared to what a younger Pele had been doing in his early days. Neymar would finish the 2010 season with 43 goals, but had already won the status of "next big thing" by then. Pelé himself even decided to butt in and ask Dunga to consider recruiting the boy.
After Brazil's quarterfinal exit in which the lack of inspiration upfront was more shocking then their breakdown against the Netherlands, Neymar's arrival was just a matter of time, and incoming manager Mano Menezes didn't even blink. Debuting and scoring in a 2-0 win over the U.S., Neymar became the Seleção's top scorer, and Brazilians enthused for him in a way that hadn't been seen since Ronaldinho.
From a marketing standpoint, he was also piping hot. There were moments of doubt and criticism, but by the time the 2014 World Cup started, the Seleção was Neymar plus 10 others on the pitch for Brazilians and whoever else was watching the team.
While some colleagues clearly looked rattled by the responsibility of playing a World Cup at home and by the task of redeeming Brazil from their shame of 1950, Neymar really looked at home and at ease, even though he did shed a tear or two while singing the national anthem in their opening game against Croatia in São Paulo. Then, when he walked toward the penalty spot to take a kick against Chile after Hulk and Willian had missed, he knew it was a date with destiny. Coolly wrong-footing the keeper, Neymar looked ready to follow the footsteps of his idol Ronaldo, whose success in 2002 inspired him even to copy the horrendous haircut the former Inter Milan and Barcelona player wore in that tournament.
These days in Brazil, kids from all walks of life imitate Neymar. In a recent Dutch practice session in Rio, one of Dirk Kuyt's kids scored a goal in a kickabout and celebrated by shouting "Neymar."
Neymar's absence is a huge blow to Brazil's hope of lifting a sixth World Cup title. There is no point in comparing this situation with Pele's injury in 1962 because that tournament was contested by a Seleção that not only boasted the likes of Garrincha and Didi, they were also peppered with veterans from Brazil's successful 1958 campaign.
Now the Seleção face Germany in the semifinal on Tuesday having to deal with the biggest nightmare scenario one could have imagined for the hosts before the World Cup began. It is not an understatement to say Brazilians will wake up on Saturday feeling quite deflated; even German fans might agree that the tournament lost a lot of its charm with the departure of yet another major protagonist.
The Seleção, however, will have to answer the question about what they could do having lost their biggest star. Given that he helped them get that far in the competition, his teammates owe him a display of courage. They need to leave their hearts and souls on the pitch in Belo Horizonte in a couple of days, while supporters will be more crucial than even in spurring the team forward.
Neymar deserves that so that his sacrifice won't be in vain.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter @Fernando_Duarte.