Brazil and Neymar’s dreams broken in an instant

Brazil's Neymar and the challenge from Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga that injured him. Picture: PA
Brazil's Neymar and the challenge from Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga that injured him. Picture: PA
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JOGUEM por ele. Play for him. Somos todos Neymar. We are all Neymar. Um por todos, todos por Ele. One for all, all for him. These were the sentiments expressed in the media in Brazil yesterday. If it appears melodramatic, then you are clearly unaware of the memo in this country that insists on everyone wearing a shirt with a No.10 on its back.

Of course, this number has an iconic quality in Brazil. It was the shirt worn not only by Pele, but also Zico. However, Neymar is the current owner.

Unlike the others, he had the chance to win the World Cup for his country in Brazil, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that has gone in the time it took for Juan Carlos Zuniga’s knee to be implanted in his back, just minutes before the end of Brazil’s 2-1 quarter-final victory over Colombia.

In one supermarket near Copacabana beach, all the staff wear No.10 shirts with Neymar Jr on the backs. It is true. They really are all Neymar here. Especially now he has been ruled out of the rest of the tournament.

What now? A nation turns its expectant eyes to… Fred?

Perhaps the absence of potential alternative heroes is why the country has fallen into a state of seeming grief. It was quite perceptible yesterday. Around 9pm local time, when the news began to filter thought that the Brazil team doctor Rodrigo Laimar had diagnosed a broken vertebra, it quickly became the only story worth reporting. According to Brazilians, a light had gone out in the World Cup. In their World Cup.

The Brazil president Dilma Rousseff sent a message of support to Neymar on Twitter. “Along with the rest of Brazil, I’m hoping for the recovery of our greatest player,” she wrote. Not even the prayers of a president and nearly 200 million others could save him.

He was eventually ruled out of action “for six to ten weeks”. Normally, this wouldn’t mean the end of the world. But when the World Cup has only seven days left, there is a sense that the tackle by Zuniga might as well have ended Neymar’s career.

It was confirmed yesterday that FIFA’s disciplinary committee is studying the challenge that led to Neymar suffering a fractured vertebra in order to decide whether further action should be taken. Zuniga was not even booked at the time. “The disciplinary committee is analysing the matter,” said FIFA head of media Delia Fischer. “The spirit of fair play is very important and we want to avoid difficult things on the field of play.”

The Colombian’s guilt is already well-established on the streets of Rio. “Zuniga is a killer,” said Eloah Dias, who walking outside the Maracana stadium yesterday, with her son Nicolas (in a No 10 Brazil shirt, naturally).

“Is he [Zuniga] a member of the Medellin cartel [a Colombian terrorist group]? It is not a sport, it is a crime.”

Ronaldo also pointed the figure of blame at Zuniga. Helpfully, as far as reporters were concerned, the Brazilian legend joined Fabio Cannavaro and Lothar Matthaus, World Cup-winning skippers with Italy and West Germany respectively, at a press conference at the Maracana stadium yesterday. It was supposed to review the 58 games in the World Cup up to yesterday morning through the eyes of three past champions, but there was really only one subject, just as there was only one subject in the bars, stores and on street corners throughout the land.

From the window of an apartment opposite the Maracana stadium, a Neymar shirt hung loosely on a washing line – whether it was meant to be hanging at half-mast it is difficult to know, but it certainly seemed as if it was.

Inside the stadium where it was hoped Neymar would have his greatest moment a week today, Ronaldo shook his head. Ronaldo despaired. At one point he rose from his seat as if to spar with Mattheus. It was a mock reference to Tuesday’s semi-final between Brazil and Germany. “That’s not fair,” said the German. “We are a different weight category.” But Ronaldo was being deadly serious when he said that, in his opinion, there was “intention from the Colombian player to cause harm” when he careered into Neymar.

Ronaldo, too, has been the victim of reckless tackles in his career. He was also a high-profile casualty at a World Cup, although memorably was restored to the starting line-up in the final against France in 1998 after being originally excluded, following a fit.

This reinstatement, it has been rumoured, came at the behest of Nike. Not even the influential kit manufacturer can insist that Neymar plays on. The player returned to the Brazilian camp yesterday in a wheelchair. Neymar has been cheered by the messages of support from an incredibly diverse range of people, including Lionel Messi, who now has the chance to establish himself as the undisputed star of the tournament.

Ronaldo, too, texted Neymar, he revealed: “I sent Neymar a message, conveying my support and solidarity. I told him the whole country is proud of him and the team will win the World Cup and dedicate it to him.

“I felt the physical pain of the strike he suffered and the worst pain of having to abandon the World Cup,” he added. “This is the World Cup in Brazil. Neymar had so many dreams, playing a World Cup in his own country, in front of his people. He’s suffering in life, having to abandon this World Cup.’’

“The challenge was a very violent one – I believe there was an intention by the Colombian player to cause some harm,” continued Ronaldo. “I don’t think it was normal football play, I don’t know whether he had planned this beforehand but I do believe it was very aggressive, very violent.”

The knives are out for Zuninga, whose explanation for his high challenge was to say it was just part of the game. Judging by the mood on the streets yesterday, there is little mercy for the player, despite the strong-arm tactics Brazil themselves employed when trying to shackle Colombia’s James Rodriguez. “FIFA should give him a strong punishment, like Suarez,” said Dias, as she contemplated what should happen to Zuniga, now that Fifa have confirmed they will investigate the challenge.

“What Suarez did was so small compared to this.”

“Fred is a handsome guy but he is doing nothing. He is cute but he will not win the World Cup for us. That was Neymar’s job.”

Now that Argentina have booked their semi-final place, the dreaded scenario of Brazil losing to their deadly rivals at the Maracana is becoming a serious possibility, although, without Neymar, the hosts look to have their hands full simply trying to overcome Germany on Tuesday.

“We could not lose to Argentina in Rio, that would be impossible,” said Dias. “But I think we would lose, without Neymar.

“Even people who do not like football feel sad.

“We have a lot of problems with Brazil, you might know, with the health service and schools and we are not very happy with the cost of the World Cup. But even then people are very angry with the Colombian guy and very sad about Neymar. Not only because he is a football player but he is a human being and he is a young guy, and this could be a danger to his health as a young sportsman.

“Also, this was his one chance. The guy just killed his opportunity to win the World Cup in Brazil. I can’t understand why he did it.

“He has a criminal face,” she added, of Zuniga. “I hate that guy.”