Reda Maher

Brazil 360: A nation drowns its sorrows over Neymar’s passing

Reda Maher

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Brazil fans wait outside Sao Carlos Hospital in Fortaleza where Neymar was being treated for a back injury (AFP)

Football is a funny old game.

One minute, Brazil erupts as the Seleccao see off a spirited Colombia side to earn a World Cup semi-final spot against Germany.

[MATCH REPORT: BRAZIL DOWN COLOMBIA]

Everyone hits the town, flags and kit in tow, ready for a good old Friday night rumble.

But Neymar, the superstar of the team, is carried off on a stretcher. Most thought it was nothing. Just a heavy bruise. Rumours circulated that it was worse. He'd miss the semi-final, they said. Fans swarmed to the Fortaleza hospital where Neymar was taken. Was it just a knock? Was it more serious.

Then the news filtered through – their star player, best player, only genuinely creative player has been ruled out of the tournament with a cracked back. Thiago Silva may be suspended for the Germany game, but Dante can step in. Dante, you know, of Champions League fame.

[NEYMAR OUT OF WORLD CUP]

But Neymar. Out for 4-6 weeks. Done. Cue national panic. What to do? Play Fred on his own? Start with Jo?! Why didn’t Big Phil Scolari take at least one of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Coutinho, Lucas Moura, Wellington or even Pato? Even Pato!!

Neymar is essentially the face of this World Cup – his mohawked image adorning advertising campaigns since last year, the golden boy of Brazilian football, with none of the baggage that often accompanies their star players.

But, after a nasty prang with Juan Zuniga, the Barcelona star is out for the foreseeable future with fractured vertebrae. No laughing matter.

Now Fred, the Brazilian Emile Heskey, is their main striking hope. Perhaps Hulk could play inside? Given his ineptitude in front of goal on Friday, perhaps not.

I decided to speak to these conflicted Brazil fans, out on the razz to celebrate victory, but introspective after losing their best player.

What with this being Rio, and Friday nights being Friday nights, most were too drunk to care.

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“We’re going to win the World Cup!” insisted Alexandre (pictured on the left) as he tried to cadge cigarettes off passers-by. “Neymar is not the only player in the world! We’ve got Fred!”

Seconds later his mood had changed, almost tearful.

“They kicked him. They broke him. It’s not fair.”

[SUBSTANCE OVER STYLE: BIG PHIL BETTERS '82 VINTAGE]

Some fans, while three sheets to the wind, tried to detail their views on what Scolari should do next.

Lucas, in a mixture of Portuguese, pidgin Spanish and intricate hand signals, explained that Brazil should revert to three central midfielders, and use one of Oscar or Willian as an advanced playmaker.

“I’d like to get rid of Hulk, and use both, but Felipao (Scolari) won’t do that,” he said.

“The important thing is that we allow the full-backs to push on as they are our best hope of attacking in wide positions.

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“I’d probably make sure Luiz Gustavo sits deep, as it allows David Luiz to bring the ball out, and Dante will need protection,” he added, while punching an imaginary opponent with his fist.

“Let me tell you, we can still win the World Cup. Brazil are not just one player – we are less about one player than, say, Argentina and Lionel Messi.

“With the fans behind us we can still do it.”

Leandro, wearing a ridiculous sleeveless tourist shirt despite only being from Sao Paulo, was a bit less drunk and a bit more introspective.

“Neymar is a pillar of our game, and without him it will be difficult. Yes, other teams are reliant on other players but, in the forward positions, we are too reliant on Neymar.

“In defence we have options – Dante can come in for Silva, Alves and Maicon are both great right-backs – and in the midfield positions we have lots of players.

[READ ALL OF REDA'S WORLD CUP BLOGS]

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“But up front? Fred and Jo will do a good job, but no, they are not Neymar. And I wish we’d drop Hulk and play both Oscar and Willian.

“The problem is, at home, in the World Cup, the fans will urge us to attack. But the smart thing against Germany would be to pack the midfield and play on the counter.”

Renan, despite coming in David Luiz fancy dress while sporting a Neymar beer-holder, was relatively sober and able to articulate his views in English. But the gist was pretty much the same.

“Brazil depend a lot on Neymar but got the result anyway. We have football in our blood, and we will do our best, win or lose.

“We can do it, though. We will take our chance.

“Who should replace Neymar? We should play with three central midfielders and one less forward. Oscar should come in and Willian should replace Hulk, with Fred up front on his own.

“I don’t like Hulk. I’d rather use Willian.”

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Renan, who wasn't all that drunk, despite the outfit

Finally, we managed to find a sober Brazil fan, Oscar, a hotel barman.

He was downbeat, to say the least.

"Tonight everybody's celebrating of course but it's a strange feeling. We should be happy and excited, but it's impossible to forget that we've lost Neymar.

“When I saw him leaving the pitch like that I immediately thought it was really, really bad. I can't really celebrate tonight because I know that, even if we've won a crucial game, maybe we've lost the World Cup.

“Losing Neymar was almost as dramatic as if we lost the game. Well, of course not, but you see my point. Can we be world champions without him? Very hard to say. I'm afraid not.

“Who should replace him? But nobody can replace him! There is Neymar and the rest. Well, there was Neymar and the rest.

“It’s worse (than Argentina losing Messi). Much worse. Because even if Messi is Messi, behind him, Argentina has guys with a level of talent which would make his absence ‘acceptable’.

“For Brazil, the drop in talent is much, much, much more important. I'm afraid we're just not the same without him. We have to believe but this is Germany, not Cameroon.”

Maybe he'll cheer up at the end of his shift. Maybe he's right. Who really knows? Germany did not need to be anywhere near their best to beat a sluggish France side, and indeed have not been that impressive this tournament. Maybe an all-action performance like Friday's, even without Neymar, will be enough for Brazil?

So there you have it. Chelsea’s young guns should be given the chance against Germany, Hulk should be made to feel very, very angry, and Neymar – well – let’s just forget about that for the weekend.

Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

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