It hasn’t hit them yet.
They weren’t caring much about Neymar and his broken vertebrae here in Rio on Friday night.
The fireworks were launched, sometimes with a deafening, pounding sound – no lights, just noise – as ugly as Brazil’s win over Colombia. They drank and partied on the streets. Those vast seas of yellow shirts celebrating the carnival that continues here for another few days.
But it will hit them, eventually. By Saturday photos of him in pain on the field were on the cover of every newspaper.
Still, it didn’t seem to sink in that their best player’s World Cup was over. Asking people about it, the response was a shrug. Too bad. But only two games left, Brazil can win two. It’s the destiny now.
But Brazil’s World Cup is as brittle as Neymar.
He epitomizes everything about the alleged attractions of a World Cup held in Brazil. The poster-boy for the team, the country, the tournament.
His image is ubiquitous. It’s his shirt that the people wear. His number, the iconic No. 10, that’s on the cheap flip-flops the World Cup tourists buy to stroll on the beaches. He’s it; he embodies everything.
Young, slim, glamorous, with sublime skill in ball control and a breathtaking instinct for goal-scoring opportunities, he’s been poetry-in-motion, and Brazil’s picture of itself for some time.
He stayed here longer than most young stars. Famous as he was a standout for Brazil’s U-17 team at the 2009 U-17 World Cup, he stuck with his local club employer, Santos, for four years. He rejected all the offers of enormous instant wealth that came with the bids made for him by the richest teams in Europe.
He lent legitimacy to Brazilian club soccer by staying here, giving it a much-needed upgrade in image at time when this country of storied soccer clubs seemed to exist only as a development factory for European teams Neymar came to exist in the public imagination as a fantasy embodiment of the “New Brazil,” the Brazil reaching for first-world status and confidence. In a way, he’s part of why the World Cup and Olympics are being held in Brazil.
He’s the walking, running, stylish, smiling exemplification of the Brazil that dares to host the World Cup and expects to win it.
As he writhed in pain on the field on Friday, though, he became something else – the personification of Brazil’s brittleness as a country and a team.
Holding the World Cup is Brazil was a fantasy idea from the beginning. A sort of impulse-buy by the nation. With a stagnant economy, a seething middle-class and rampant urban crime, the place has been barely holding it together as World Cup hosts.
And then the national team, in keeping with the situation, didn’t look like the country’s image of itself as a captivating soccer outfit and international powerhouse. The win against Colombia was a win-at-all-costs victory. The play was aggressive, angry, and violent and as far from the beautiful game as this World Cup will get, if we’re lucky.
There is bitter irony in the fact that although Brazil won, and in winning ugly, it lost its avatar of elegant soccer, doing so in the course of a grotesque combat Brazil itself unleashed. The tactic was to cause harm to Colombia’s players and the result was serious harm to its own best player.
What happened is that anxiety about being second-best gave way to angst and that in turn became anger and desperation. Which is something that could be said about Brazil itself in the lead-up to the hosting of the World Cup.
The very idea of a World Cup in Brazil in anchored in the international public and Brazil’s own ideal of Brazilian soccer – cultured, creative, and joyous. That’s now as broken as Neymar’s vertebrae.
After a glorious start, the tournament has turned constricted, cautious, the style of play premeditated, not free-flowing. The goals are fewer. And in Neymar’s injury is captured every reason why it’s all gone awry.
He symbolized so much at the start and now symbolizes the unseemly end. The end of beauty, the end of “jogo bonito.” It hasn’t hit them yet here, but it might when everybody sobers up and looks around at what’s happening.