There was no escaping the serious injury that took Brazil’s young star, Neymar, out of the World Cup Friday.
A sense of anger and injustice washed over social networks. Hopes of a sixth World Cup title had been piled high on the 22-year-old’s shoulders, and he himself has been talking for years about his dream of winning the World Cup in Brazil.
Now, after a flying jump and knee to the spine from Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuñiga that cracked his third vertebrae, Neymar was taken off the pitch on a stretcher and rushed to hospital in tears. Some of the joy was sucked out of Brazil’s 2-1 victory.
President Dilma Rousseff issued a public letter to Neymar and Brazil’s technical commission Saturday, addressing the player as “darling Neymar” and praised his “uncommon strength.”
“Your face of pain yesterday,” she wrote, “injured my heart and the heart of every Brazilian.”
“I know like every Brazilian you never give up and, more quickly than you imagine, will be back filling our souls with happiness and our history with successes,” Rousseff concluded.
Neymar’s Facebook page was pinging every few seconds Saturday morning with messages of support. He recorded video messages of thanks for fans and support for teammates. So dominant a subject was his injury and its repercussions that it even entered TV coverage of Argentina’s game against Belgium.
During the first half, Brazilian television commentators described images of Neymar leaving the team’s training ground in an ambulance, to take a helicopter back to his family house in the São Paulo beach resort of Guarujá. They had to keep broadcasting pictures of the match, they explained, but at halftime, they promised, they would show Brazil the Neymar pictures everyone wanted to see.
Luiz Bonfim, 40, sat watching the Argentina game on a central Rio de Janeiro street on an enormous television someone had balanced on a wall. “It was aggressive,” he said of Zuñiga’s knee-in-the-back. “He should be punished.”
Bonfim suggested the Colombian should be suspended for as long as Neymar was out of action. On Facebook, Brazilians exchanged FIFA’s email address to send complaints. Bonfim remained optimistic. “We will be champions anyway,” he said.
But there was an increasing, and sobering, realization that Neymar’s injury changed everything. Now, instead of being clear favorites for the Cup, the Brazilians — without Neymar and captain Thiago Silver, suspended for a second yellow card — will be underdogs against the Germans on Tuesday.
To win the World Cup they think is rightfully theirs, the Brazilians will have to prove themselves real champions and overcome the odds. Because even if they can beat Germany, then there is the specter of a possible final against Argentina and Messi at the Maracanã.
“Want to believe in a miracle? Without Neymar, favoritism became smoke. The team stops playing for him and can pull a rabbit out of the hat,” wrote Marlos Mendes, a journalist for Rio tabloid O Dia on his personal Facebook on Saturday. “Fred and Hulk have the chance to overcome themselves and become heroes. I say this because I don’t understand anything about football and because I believe in tragic storylines. And the tragic hero has to go to hell before he reaches heaven.”
Mendes could have been talking about one of Brazil’s enduring heroes –- Ronaldo, known in Brazil as simply “The Phenomenon.” After his unexplained bad turn in the 1998 World Cup final in which Brazil lost to France, after the horrendous knee injuries that would have ended the careers of many athletes, Ronaldo battled doggedly back to fitness and won the 2002 World Cup for Brazil with two goals in the final against the same team they will face Tuesday: Germany.
Now Brazil needs a hero like him — not just to score, but to fill the space that Neymar occupied in the Brazilian imagination. But who?
Despite Mendes’s comments, Hulk has yet to really show the strength of the comic book hero for whom he is named. Jokes about him and Brazil’s under-performing center forward Fred rebounded on social networks. “Brazil already had the Hulk,” joked one, over a picture of the midfielder. Underneath was a picture of Fred. “Now it has the Invisible Man,” read the punch-line.
Some suggested David Luiz. The Paris Saint-Germain defender has been pivotal to Brazil’s games and scored the second goal from a free kick with a shot that curled high over the Colombian wall on Friday. Is he big enough to fill the gap?
Commentator Juca Kfouri, during an ESPN broadcast Friday night, said he believed the players have it within them. “Something tells me that, knowing that we will face a team with many more individual talents than us at the Mineirão on Tuesday, it is possible,” he said. “It is possible to rip out of the soul a victory that would be epic.” In football, and especially in this, the least predictable, most thrilling World Cup in decades, anything seems possible. Even this.