Weep for Neymar

Brazilians feel like they've suffered a death in the family. They have cried on camera. They are staging vigils outside hospitals and hotels.

They weep for what they have lost - Neymar.

The sense of an entire nation grieving for one injured footballer is extraordinary but increasingly understandable after spending a month here.

Neymar crystallized a country's hopes. He was their rallying cry. He stuck a Band Aid across a wounded Brazil crippled by corruption and divided by political protest. He stemmed the bleeding.

But footballer and fan are now united in their pain, sharing the suffering. All three national newspapers are practically wrapped in black armbands. Neymar's fractured vertebra has temporarily broken their spirit. They will rise once more for the Germans. But the mourning comes first.

Newspaper special editions are devoted to Neymar's condition and the cynical foul itself, dissecting Juan Zuniga's brutal knee in the back in microscopic detail. There is serious talk of the Colombian defender going into hiding.

As the grief subsides, revenge takes its place. Brazilians believe the Colombians have blood on their hands; not just any blood, but the blood of their impudent local hero. The sunniest son of Sao Paulo, the favourite of the favelas, has been butchered by a Colombian brute.

Reality be damned, that's the only narrative being read here. Brazilians talk of avenging their angel, ready with torches and pitchforks to seek justice, right the wrong and put the pain behind them.

The tension is palpable, but it's indicative of a nation whose fortunes are inextricably tied to the Selecao. People waited outside Neymar's hospital. They hung around the hotel in Fortaleza. They prayed for a miracle, some form of divine intervention to allow their lightning rod, the conduit for their dreams, to somehow strike back in the final.

Torch Bearer

The World Cup feels much the same way. Neymar hasn't carried the tournament single-handedly, but he has been one of its bearers, hoisting it upon his shoulders and lifting games beyond our wildest expectations.

This has been the cup of creative endeavour and individual ingenuity, where ponderous possession has given way to the rise of counter-attacking enterprise. Automatons served the artist, rather than the other way round, and the audience was treated to one exhibition of anarchic, aesthetic football after another.

And Neymar revelled as this tournament's playground superstar. Older, wiser men might have crumbled, but the unbearable lightness of being a Brazilian beacon rested easily on his shoulders.

Despite representing a country gripped with fear, he played with none. Somehow, Neymar always found the freedom to breathe, and smile, and laugh, and bully a crowd - and a nation - to make more noise and dare to dream.

But now he's been kicked out of the tournament, booted in the back in a cynical act. Gripped by hysteria, Brazilians are calling the foul "savage", but Zuniga's wretched challenge was more than that. It was cowardly. A ball cannot be won by going through an opponent's spine.

Neymar's World Cup is over and the sadness is overwhelming here. His campaign now comes with an asterisk, a niggling question and an eternal debate over what might have been. His best was almost certainly yet to come.

This article was first published on July 6, 2014.
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