The stakes for a World Cup win were already unimaginably high in futebol-crazed host nation Brazil. The president of the Brazilian Football Federation actually said last month "if we lose, then we all go to hell." The team's psychologist had to be called in after its players have teared up -- some sobbing uncontrollably -- on the sidelines.
But the stakes grew even higher last week when the Selecao, as the Brazilian men's national team is known, lost both its captain, Thiago Silva, who received a yellow card suspension, and its superstar, Neymar.
An idol in Brazil before he broke a vertebra during the Columbia match, Neymar ended this World Cup run something of a martyr in his country. Thousands of fans are supposedly planning to wear "We are all Neymar" masks in Tuesday afternoon's semifinal match against Germany; news reports have described the country as "a nation in mourning" since the popular young player, known for his cheery personality, was taken out of the game on a stretcher.
It is against those feverish emotions and on-field losses that Brazil will face the heavily favored Germans. And if it has a shot at defeating them, at least three men will need to step in and help lead the team. The first, of course, is the man whose job it is already to do that -- manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, known to many as Big Phil. The team's coach, Scolari has already led the Brazilian team to a World Cup trophy in 2002. But this time, he must try and reach the finals without the Brazilian soccer deities who helped him the last time around and find a way to inspire his team to step up in Neymar's absence.
So far, he seems aware of the challenge, trying to buoy spirits in advance of the game and highlight the value of the rest of his roster. "We will have another 22 players who have been hand-picked and capped because we know they are special," he said at a news conference Monday. "We will miss Neymar, but we have a team who can overcome the difficulties and go on into the next round." He's also clearly trying to galvanize the team around its icon's departure as motivation. "He has done his share," Scolari said. "Now it's up to us to do our share."
But there are also two players worth watching in particular for how well they lead the heads and hearts of the Selecao Tuesday afternoon. Dante, who is expected to start in place of Silva, could provide the technical expertise. He plays for the German team Bayern Munich during the year, and can help familiarize the team with the strengths and weaknesses of several members of the German lineup. Germany and Brazil, astonishingly, have only faced each other once in World Cup play, and it will take strategic and expert play to defeat the tactical efficiency of the Germans.
And then there is David Luiz, who can help provide the heart. He is a huge talent and star in his own right -- it was Luiz who scored the incredible free kick that sent Brazil to the semifinals in a win over Columbia. But he's also shown himself to be a charming, calm and certainly enthusiastic on-field leader who "provided the most visible source of inspiration" in the final penalty kicks against Chile, wrote Barney Ronay in the Guardian. It was Luiz who walked out to congratulate each player who kicked a successful goal in that epic shootout -- whether they were Brazilian or Chilean -- and who seems confident in his own leadership skills. "I’m ready, I’m vice-captain," he has said. "This group is very easy to handle because everyone is humble and fun."
Will this trio of leaders -- along with their teammates and the thousands of Brazilian fans screaming along in Belo Horizonte Tuesday afternoon -- be enough to overcome the emotional pressure and the setbacks Brazil faces? We'll know later today. If Brazil wins, it's a reminder of the value -- especially when talent is lost -- of an experienced veteran manager and a deep bench of players with leadership strengths of their own.