In her letter to the stricken Neymar over the weekend, the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff described her dismay at the sight of the nation’s “great warrior, who will never let himself be held back even when wounded”. Frankly, the mood in the country demanded nothing less, with the gloom over the Selecao’s fallen soldier bordering on the febrile over the weekend.
The language that Dilma chose appeared deliberately militaristic, strange for a country that has fought so few wars or, for that matter, has so few enemies. In fact, if there is anyone who knows a thing or two about life outside the football bubble, it is Dilma, imprisoned and tortured under the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. But as a politician, and one facing elections later this year, there was no danger that she was about to miss this chance to add her voice to the general mourning.
At Brazil’s training camp in Teresópolis today, an hour’s drive north of Rio de Janeiro among the mountain range known as “God’s fingers”, the Brazilian media found a hundred different ways to ask Willian and Bernard, the two candidates to replace Neymar, how they were coping with absence of their No 10. He is now convalescing at home in Sao Paulo as Luiz Felipe Scolari decides how best to replace the boy-prince of Brazilian football.
Video:Neymar's message after injury
The final question to Willian said it all about the concern with which the nation regards Tuesday's World Cup semi-final against Germany in Belo Horizonte. Had the player been to see Regina Brandao, the team’s psychiatrist, and a close aide of Scolari, to discuss how he would cope with the absence of Neymar? “Not yet,” he said. “We spoke to her before the Colombia game and it was fine … let’s see what she has to share with us later.”
Neymar's best and worst moments of the 2014 World Cup
Neymar's best and worst moments of the 2014 World Cup
1/9 Neymar scores his first against Croatia
After going a goal behind in the very first match of the tournament courtesy of a Marcelo own goal, Neymar got his tally off the mark as he scored from long range to drag Brazil level.
2/9 He adds his second in controversial circumstances
Despite a stop-start, jerky run up, Neymar converts from the penalty spot to give Brazil the lead and they would go on to secure a 3-1 victory. However, the Croatians were infuriated by what they perceived as a dive from striker Fred to win the penalty. Not that it mattered to Neymar, who duly took his chance from the spot.
3/9 But was he lucky to be on the pitch?
A stray elbow on Luka Modric could have warranted a red card for Neymar, but he escaped with a yellow and was on hand to score later in the match when the opportunity arose.
4/9 Tears of pride
Neymar in tears during the Brazil national anthem before the game with Mexico, such is the importance of the occasion
5/9 Neymar left frustrated against Mexico
An unimpressive Brazil side were left hugely frustrated by Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. In a man-of-the-match display, Ochoa kept out a close range header from Neymar to see the match end as a goalless draw.
6/9 Back on form and back in the goals
You can’t keep a quality player quiet for long though, and unfortunately for Cameroon, their dismal World Cup campaign came to an end at the hands of another Neymar brace. Taking his tally to four goals, Neymar put himself in the reckoning for the Golden Boot, although his injury has put paid to that dream for now.
7/9 Caught with his pants down
Despite being the poster boy of Fifa’s World Cup, the governing body confirmed that they were investigating Neymar for allegedly breaching sponsorship rules by partially showing the top of his underwear that may or may not have been part of a sponsorship stunt. Eventually, Fifa conformed they would take no further action.
8/9 Neymar’s penalty prowess sees off Chile
After a hard-fought 120 minutes, Brazil and Chile were locked at 1-1 courtesy of David Luiz and Alexis Sanchez strikes. Mauricio Pinilla and Sanchez both saw their penalty shootout efforts saved by Julio Cesar, but Willian and Hulk followed suit. With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, Neymar coolly slotted home from the spot, which turned out to be the match-winner as Gonzalo Jara then hit the post to send Brazil through to the quarter-finals.
9/9 One assist, no goals and a trip to hospital sees Neymar done
The forward had seen his impact in the quarter-final against Colombia somewhat limited due to the rough and tumble nature of the match – although the Brazilians were just as guilty of using the tactic against James Rodriguez. His corner allowed Thiago Silva to bundle the ball across the line for the opener, before Juan Camilo Zuniga’s ill-timed knee in the back cracked on of Neymar’s vertebrae and ended his run at this year’s World Cup.
The fractured vertebrae of their star player, sustained against Colombia on Friday night as, Scolari said earlier in the weekend, “equivalent to a catastrophe”. It is worth bearing in mind as you drive up the windy mountain roads here in Teresópolis that more than 900 people died in the area little more than three years ago amid mud slides and flooding caused by heavy rain. But this is a country gripped with an obsession about the World Cup finals and winning it on home soil.
Scolari described how he and his players feared that Neymar had been paralysed by the knee in his back from Colombia’s Juan Zuniga. “At the time, Marcelo ran over to Neymar and asked him how he was feeling,” the Brazil coach said. “Neymar told him, ‘I can’t feel my legs’. It was a big shock, the image of Neymar being carried off a stretcher towards the plane, the difficulties, the fears.
“It’s the equivalent to a catastrophe. Neymar is a key figure for us because he is the kind of player who would make a difference in any team. We have lost the one player we did not want to lose, and it’s for the semi-final and the final. He will be with us if he can [at the games] either on the bench or in the stands. We have already asked him to do this. It will depend on how he is.”
That was even before he got onto the suspension of his captain Thiago Silva, who picked up a needless second booking at a goal-kick and is out of the semi-final. Brazil’s attempt to appeal his suspension is no more than a symbolic gesture in a nation that is starting to feel rather desperate. Yet tomorrow in Belo Horizonte it will be Thiago who gives the mandatory Fifa pre-match press conference nonetheless, a minor act of defiance.
David Luiz will be the captain against Germany, with Dante, the Bayern Munich man stepping into Thiago’s place to face many of his German club-mates. Then the remaining decision for Scolari will be between Bernard and Willian. Sitting alongside each other in the big marquee alongside their training pitch in Teresopolis, they were asked by a Brazilian journalist to argue each other’s cases to start the semi-final against Germany. Otherwise they were bombarded with question about the team’s “Neymar dependencia”.
“It is a complicated situation and we are all sad,” said Bernard, Bernard Anicio Caldeira Duarte, a Belo Horizonte boy by birth who played for Atletico Mineiro before his transfer to Shakhtar Donetsk last summer. “Of course we have lost a great player but we will try to do our best regardless of who represents Neymar … he said he would send us his positive energy. It’s hard for him as a player and a human being.”
There was considerable interest in whether Willian’s experience of playing alongside Oscar for the national team might make him a better bet than the pocket-sized Bernard, who stands just a bit over 5ft 4in. “No-one, especially not the Brazilian people thought we would find ourselves in a situation like this without Neymar,” Willian said.
Asked what he had learned in the past year under Jose Mourinho, Willian said he had absorbed “a lot – especially on defending”. “He always demands a lot from us. I have had a good experience at Chelsea. I have played a lot of games and run a lot for him. I hope I will learn a lot more over my next four years at the club.”
Willian has had his own cross to bear with that missed penalty against Chile – it was not even on target – that could potentially have proved disastrous were it not for Julio Cesar rescuing the shoot-out for Brazil. “It’s always a learning experience,” he said. “If there is another penalty shoot-out I would put my hand up to take one.”
It is Willian who is the natural favourite to take the place of Neymar and his tireless running and tactical discipline, refined under Mourinho this season will play well into the kind of game-plan one imagines that Scolari is formulating for the Germans. Willian was asked whether he was “the new Amarildo”, the striker who successfully replaced the injured Pele en route to Brazil winning the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile.
“I have heard the stories,” he said, with a smile. “It had never crossed my mind but I hope to be ready.” It was an admirable attempt to stay calm, in a nation also trying its hardest to hold its nerve.Reuse content