BRASILIA, Brazil – The Crack Heard Around The World took place on Friday night, when Brazil's greatest current soccer hero had his vertebrae fractured and his World Cup ended.
It took a split second for the damage to occur to Neymar's back after Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga crashed into him in the waning minutes of Brazil's 2-1 quarterfinal victory, but the collision's reverberations will be felt for some time to come.
Such is the importance of Neymar to his national team and indeed, this soccer-mad country, that Brazil instantly went from being the bookies' favorite to beat Germany in Tuesday's semifinal in Belo Horizonte to an unaccustomed underdog.
Clearly, the host nation is in need of some help and it could be of the divine variety. Brazil's soccer players are a mightily religious bunch and previous versions of the national team have prayed repeatedly and publicly while representing the yellow and blue.
"Brazil will win the World Cup even without Neymar," Thales Miguet, a young missionary with a Rio de Janeiro-based Christian group, said outside Brasilia's Estadio Nacional on Saturday. "The players believe in God, and He will guide them."
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While the current crew of Brazilian heroes makes no secret of their religious devotion, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari will spend the next few days seeking a more earthly cure to his worst nightmare. Problem is, Brazil does not really have a Plan B on how to cope without Neymar. The team has never, or at least not recently, had to deal with that scenario.
Not only has the 22-year-old been Scolari's best, most dynamic and most consistent player but he has also been ever-present. The last time Neymar did not start a game for the team was in May 2010.
Neymar is the squad's bedrock and its driving force all rolled into one peroxide-tinted package. Without his influence and impetus, Brazil might not even have reached Friday's quarterfinal as he was the standout performer in the round-of-16 nail-biter against Chile, Julio Cesar's goalkeeping heroics notwithstanding.
In terms of a replacement forward, Brazil, which never ceases to provide a conveyor belt of talent, is actually thin on the ground. Fred, to be kind, just isn't particularly good when compared to sensational Brazilian attackers of yesteryear. Jo was woeful as a substitute against Chile and could not cut it in the English Premier League a few years back. Willian has just two national team goals to his name and Bernard, another pacey winger, has one.
Then there is Hulk, a swashbuckling, powerful and giant forward but a player that Scolari insists on sticking out on the wing. That may change now out of necessity.
But without its talisman, can Brazil still win?
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Scolari insists the Brazilians can, following his ongoing mantra of "seven steps to heaven." Five of those steps have now been negotiated but the sixth, and most difficult so far, will be tackled without both Neymar and suspended captain and defensive anchor Thiago Silva.
Meanwhile, a sense of disbelief seems to have overcome this country. This was supposed to be Neymar's tournament and it was all shaping up that way … until Zuniga sent a flying knee into his back.
Neymar's countrymen – grown men, young boys, female shop assistants, adorable babies – will keep wearing his jersey everywhere on planes and buses and in city streets. And probably in churches, too.
But Neymar can't help Brazil now. And if the much-desired "Hexa" – what would be the nation's sixth World Cup triumph – is still in its destiny, it will come without his magical touch.
- Sports & Recreation
- BRASILIA, Brazil
- Luiz Felipe Scolari