In the past 48 hours, I’ve lost count the number of conversations I’ve had with people or have overheard others talking about how Brazil won’t be able to defeat Germany due to the loss of Neymar and Thiago Silva.
In Brazil, meanwhile, the conversations have changed from “Neymar will win it,” to “Win it for Neymar.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Neymar’s fractured vertebrae that rules him out of the rest of the tournament is one of the most devastating injuries in World Cup history.
It’s one thing to miss the entire tournament through injury, but it’s quite another to lead your side up through the quarterfinal, and then have to miss the showpiece you set up for your team.
That’s especially true if, like Neymar, your country is hosting the tournament.
Neymar will get back to the World Cup. He’s still in his early twenties. But his chance to play in and win the World Cup Final in his home nation is gone.
Brazil reveres its number 10 so much more so than any other player that foreigners in the country have been left flabbergasted by the tonnage of Neymar jerseys in comparison with every other piece of clothing in the country.
Why is Neymar so beloved? He’s young, affable and good-looking off the field, and scintillating on it – but beyond that, Neymar is the only part of the current Brazil that shines.
Without Neymar, Brazil recedes almost entirely into brawn. Their best players are long on physical prowess and short on flair. No one could ever accuse Thiago Silva of too many flicks and tricks.
Think about it: The only lock in midfield is mustachioed holding player Luiz Gustavo. There’s no one to supplant journeyman forward Fred up top. Neymar’s partner-in-bleach Dani Alves has been dropped from the team for Maicon, and Brazil’s biggest attacking threat now is a man aptly named Hulk.
Neymar was the centerpiece. Framed around his brilliance, the rest of Brazil’s team made a decent supporting cast – never lacking in emotion or desire.
However much you believe that Brazil made Neymar’s bed with their abrasive play against Chile – and however much you believe that Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carbello was instructed to let players knock the stuffing out of one another to potentially suit the hosts – there is no justifying the horror what happened, for Neymar and Brazil.
Brazil’s role in the tournament has changed. Without their knight in shining armor, the murmured doubts that grew in volume with each passing, albeit unconvincing success, have risen to the fore.
If Brazil are still favorites, they are weak favorites. No one, least of all the Brazilians themselves, would be surprised if the Selecao lost against Germany on Tuesday.
Their perch at the top of world soccer, claimed last year with their memorable shellacking of Spain at the Maracana in the final of the Confederations Cup, has reached its most tenuous point.
And the fact of the matter is, Brazil might lose. Furthermore, Argentina might win – a devastation that would upset Brazil supporters.
But to prematurely call Brazil’s demise because of the loss of their centerpiece would be to ignore what has made their supporting cast best all along.
The current Brazil have thrived on being underdogs. They’ve thrived on having to prove themselves. That’s when the team bands together with its feverish support and gets a result like that win over Spain last year.
Counting Brazil out would also not be recognizing the strengths of their manager Luiz Felipe Scolari – who has also thrived on us versus them battles and never lost a World Cup game in twelve times of asking.
Support for Brazil against Germany will reach a desperate level. The impetus to rally around the country’s fallen hero is huge – and if you think the Brazil players were emotional before, just you wait until Tuesday night.
The truth is Brazil never played the role of favorite well. What kind of World Cup favorite has players who break into uncontrollable sobbing after winning a Round of 16 match? After singing the national anthem? Before a penalty shootout?
It’s the underdogs who do that – who fully experience every moment, who rally in the face of overwhelming odds, and win.
What Colombia’s spirited fight-back in the quarterfinal that ended with Neymar being bounced along on a stretcher with his broken back overshadowed was that Brazil played their best 65 minutes of the tournament against Colombia.
Led by the Golden Boot favorite James Rodriguez, Colombia fought back because they’re a good team. But Brazil saw off their challenge.
Every team has been unconvincing in this tournament, most of all Argentina – but also Germany, and potentially the sexiest team left in the Netherlands, who could have lost to Costa Rica and should have lost to Mexico.
If Brazil does win – for Neymar, not because of him – it will be one of the most heart-warming success in recent World Cup history.
The narrative around Brazil has changed, from one of discontent and fear to new resolve and energy. This team still hasn’t lost a competitive game at home since 1975. Don’t bet on that streak ending in the next week.