When Neymar turned, Brazil cheered.
When Neymar ran, Brazil cheered.
When Neymar shot, Brazil cheered.
And when Neymar lay prone on the pitch late into the Selecao's 2-1 quarterfinal win against Colombia, Brazil was stunned into silence. Their favorite son had been hurt, felled by the knee of Juan Zuniga. Silence imposed itself on the Castelao, a quiet that somehow grew both more anxious as Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, a vertebra fractured by the impact, was transferred onto a stretcher and whisked away in tears by a crew of blue-clad technicians.
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This World Cup has revealed a simple truth about Brazilian football fans. Long supposed to be addicted to free flowing, joyous football and wildly averse to anything approaching practicality, the fans have been happily cheering along Luiz Felipe Scolari's erratic and entirely unsexy side as they've rolled along to (so far) the semifinals.
For Brazil, at home, this World Cup is about winning. That's all the matters. The ghosts of 1950 need exorcizing, and the country isn't about to demand that their team both lift the trophy and look stylish doing it.
But they'd very much like to be in a position to.
At the center of this functional, methodical, plodding Selecao is Neymar, the last bastion of the old ways left on the team. The images associated with Brazilian football are mostly dead, but in Neymar, Samba football lives on, concentrated in a rail thin, wide-eyed 22-year-old from Mogi das Cruzes.
Neymar is the face of this team because in many ways the rest of the squad is merely a pedestal for him to play on, a sturdy foundation upon which he can dance. Neymar isn't just the Selecao's best player, he's a throwback to those happier, more innocent sides, recalling treasured memories and half-forgotten myths whenever he's on the ball.
Brazilians don't want their team to play Samba football. They want to win. But they very much like remembering the halcyon days, and Neymar lets them do it. While the rest of the world focuses on tight, precise team play, Neymar is an individual master, demanding the freedom to try everything on his own. Even the simplest plays are gorgeous. When he runs with the ball, he does so with such verve that even the most cynical observer must concede that there's joy in the sport yet. There's a certain childishness to his play, and it's so charming that the raw selfishness from which his array of tricks stem is somehow both innocent and forgivable.
And he's also very, very good.
The scrawny kid, seemingly more elbows and knees than muscle, was sought after by Europe's best clubs from a stupidly early age. His talent was obvious from the beginning -- it's probable, crazy that it might sounds, that Neymar, Brazil's best player, is still more talent and potential than finished product -- and in an era where European football is the holy grail, luring the world's best players with glory, money and fame as early as possible, Neymar was supposed to join the ranks of Brazilian prospects plying their trade overseas. But he didn't.
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Neymer was different. He stayed at Santos for four years, giving the Brazilian people the chance to see their best player at home and boosting the profile of the entire league in the process. When Chelsea and other giants came calling after he started at the U-17 World Cup, Neymar said no. When he was being named Man of the Match in the Copa America at 19 and those clubs were becoming increasingly desperate to sign him, he still said no. Even after leaving Santos to the Copa Libertadores, Neymar stayed home.
It was a given that he'd eventually move overseas, and Neymar finally made the move to Barcelona last summer, but that didn't mean the years of him remaining in the country were forgotten. Not only did he play like an avatar of jogo bonita itself, a whirling dervish of raw energy and implausible grace, the entire country had watched him grow up. Neymar's exploits weren't whispered rumors of deeds done across the ocean, seen on television or blurry internet feeds. He was there, in Brazil. And therefore, he was theirs.
Small wonder that he's the country's favored son: Neymar, awkward, goofy, smiling and brilliant all at once, is Brazilian football. And he can do no wrong there.
As brilliant as he was in the group stage, he wasn't perfect. He had giveaways, but even those drew applause. The crowds literally cheered his mistakes, and it wasn't just one or two. In packed bars or beachfront viewing parties, everyone clapped in unison even after turnovers. Everything Neymar did was wonderful, successful or not. Small wonder that his jersey is by far the most popular article of clothing in the country at present.
Brazil treats Neymar unlike any other player in the world. This summer was supposed to be a time for Neymar to shine, and a time for Brazil to shine. They would do so together, the country, the people, the team and the beloved star. And until that clash with Zuniga, everything was going according to plan. Four goals from Neymar, a place in the semifinals for the Selecao, a potential rival in James Rodriguez despatched with minimal fuss (put, perhaps, a surplus of kicking).
But now Neymar is done. News came slowly after the match, trickling through in drips and drops until we got the whole picture. He'd been taken to hospital after leaving the pitch. His condition wasn't looking great. And finally, the back-breaker: he was out of the rest of the tournament.
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Without Neymar, Brazil are significant underdogs in the semifinals against Germany. This World Cup that was supposed to be theirs, a chance to win on home soil and redeem the Selecao from the pain of 1950, is now slipping through their hands. And it isn't because they got outplayed, or because of a silly red card. It's because their savior, their icon, their best player took a knee to the back in just the wrong spot.
Neymar is sitting in a hospital bed, and he may as well have 200 million Brazilians there with him.