They were talking about it in the bustling street market of Brasilia, behind the capital city’s iconic television tower. And in the arrivals hall of Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos International airport late on Sunday night. “Injecaos,” they said. “Injecaos.”
The notion of painkilling injections enabling Neymar to rise from his bed like Lazarus to play in Sunday’s World Cup final – should Brazil win their semi-final – just over a week after fracturing a vertebra, is as far-fetched as things get in football. But the detail was very precise at the weekend. “Infiltration analgesia,” they were calling it, and the story took hold. In Monday's Sao Paulo newspapers, the prospect, first raised by the Globoesport TV network, was being turned over and over.
Video: Neymar's message to fans
Medical sources from no less a club than Santos – who sold Neymar to Barcelona – were quoted, validating the idea that injections and other alternative treatments could allow him to play. The vertebra which Neymar has fractured is in the best possible place for this treatment, it was said: the third vertebra of the lumbar region of the spine – known as L3, as every other Brazilian now seems to be aware. Neymar, needless to say, wanted the injections. The pain caused by such injuries always dissipates after 48 hours.
The Brazil team doctor Jose Luiz Runco hit back, condemning the “invasive” techniques the whole nation seems to be talking about as “outdated” and “an ancient method”. There was a history of recurring problems for those who used them, he said in Monday’s Folha de S. Paulo daily. A lesion – damage to the tissue – can become unstable if a football were to hit it, another paper suggested. The risks for Neymar would be severe.
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 Brazilian people know, deep down, that this whole notion is madness. Or is it? Their struggle to let go of it belongs to the foolish optimism football can create. But the default mode for Brazilians is also an assumption that the authorities are being dishonest in their public proclamations. That’s because a lot of the authorities here generally are dishonest. It is a country where people shrug about kickbacks and payments for favours given and where the football business, run by the loathed “cartolas” (“top hats”), is seen to be as corrupt as most. There is even an expression for the dishonesty: “rouba, mas faz” (roughly, “It’s OK to steal if you get things done”).
“It is happening all over again. It was the same in France,” was the contribution to the “will-he won’t-he” debate from Kleber Miranda, a driver at Guarulhos on Sunday – and he was not the only one observing that the country has been here before.
It will be 16 years this week since the entire nation tuned in to see Brazil play France in the World Cup final at the Stade de France in Paris, when only half an hour before kick-off the rumour began spreading that the golden boy of that era – a 21-year-old Ronaldo – would not be in the starting line-up. When the team walked out, the talisman materialised after all. But on the pitch he was invisible: anonymous in the 3-0 defeat which was a foregone conclusion by half-time.
Conspiracy theories rapidly took hold. There were reports that Ronaldo had been unwell before the game and been rushed to a clinic for tests, explaining his omission from Mario Zagallo’s initial team sheet, and his reappearance on it when he returned with the all-clear. It was later confirmed that he had suffered some kind of fit on the afternoon of the game, though the tests provided no clues. Brazil’s search for a conspiracy took it to the door of Nike, sponsor at that time both of Brazil and Ronaldo.
The story took hold that the company which had paid out so heavily for the association with Ronaldo had insisted he should play, when he ought never to have been on a pitch. As the writer and Independent columnist Alex Bellos writes in his book Futebol, Nike was a “ready-made scapegoat”, with its $160m (£93m) 10-year sponsorship deal with Brazil the largest ever for a national team. Had the Brazil Football Federation surrendered control to this foreign company? It seemed so, when the contract, leaked to the press, revealed Nike had bought the right to organise up to 50 “Nike friendlies” in which first-team regulars must play. The issue became one of political significance. It led to a full-scale public inquiry on the issue of Brazil’s defeat, which culminated in Ronaldo testifying before Congress and ultimately losing patience.
“Why didn’t we win?” he asked his inquisitors. “Because we lost. Because… I don’t know… we lost. Be patient. Just because we lost are we going to invent a bunch of mysteries, invent a bunch of stuff?”
That is the precedent which leaves the nation wondering now. There was an establishment versus the people strand to the discussion of the injecaos in Monday’s Sao Paulo press. “Neymar says he wants to play in the final, but the medics veto it,” was the Agora S. Paulo headline, with that “veto” written in red. “Neymar has claimed the [fractured vertebra] is less sore and therefore thinks he can recover in a week,” the paper stated. “The doctors confirmed that [it] actually is not so serious [as had been thought].” The more cerebral Folha de S. Paulo picked up the story, though quoted Runco’s rebuttal at length.
In its head, Brazil knows that there will be no Neymar on Sunday. The front pages were also absorbed with Chelsea’s Willian – “Favorito” and “O cara” (“The Man”) – as well as the tactical ramifications of life without Neymar. Oscar behind Fred, with Willian thrown to his right. If success lies ahead this week, then this will be a footnote to Brazilian football history. If not, then the questions will start.
“He wants to play in the final but Barcelona would never allow that,” Miranda in his taxi said of Neymar. “It would have been different if he were still ours; still at Santos. Santos thinks football and Brazil. Barcelona thinks money and business.”
The retrospective scrutiny of all this would be less punishing if the nation could view a place in the final, without Neymar, as an accomplishment. But where football is concerned, that will never be enough in this country. “Second is nowhere for us,” Miranda added. “Losing in the final is worse than not being there at all.”