A nation mourning its fallen hero

A semi-final showdown with Germany lies ahead tomorrow but Brazil is still wallowing in sadness after star man Neymar’s exit.

So then, a largely uneventful couple of days at the World Cup here in Brazil — apart from the assassination of JFK and the death of Lady Diana.

In a country where hype and football always rhyme, there were inescapably striking, almost eerie echoes of both events in the saturation coverage of Neymar’s abrupt and, it must be conceded, shocking exit from the tournament.

First, there was the challenge that rang around the world, replayed constantly on television and scrutinised from every angle, amateur and professional, in real time and in slow motion. Then the powerful image of Marcelo bending over the stricken player, a look of horror on the full-back’s face, his arms outstretched in a desperate plea for help. Yesterday, it emerged that his concern was well-placed: Neymar’s first words to him were that he couldn’t feel his legs.

This revelation seemed to add some retrospective credence to initial alarmist reports that, had the blow been an inch or two higher, the player could have suffered paralysis. Thankfully, the widely disseminated x-ray images showing cleanly broken vertebrae upheld the Brazil team doctor’s positive prognosis that Neymar would, given time and a spot of rehab, make a complete recovery. But as far as the World Cup of 2014 is concerned — and, right now, that’s pretty much all that concerns Brazilian football fans — the irreparable damage has already been done.

And, in this instance, there was no doubt about the identity of the villain of the piece, even if it wasn’t long before a popular conspiracy theory took root which held that Colombia’s Juan Zuninga had not in fact acted alone, that lenient refereeing on the part of Carlos Velasco Carbello had made the brutal act possible, if not inevitable. That point of view was most pithily, if unkindly, summed up by Milton Neves, the household media name who hosts a World Cup panel discussion on television here every night. The veteran broadcaster fumed: “The Spanish referee was like the Spanish team at this World Cup — a joke.”

This is to rather conveniently overlook the fact that Brazil, as has been their wont throughout the whole tournament, were dishing it out in even greater quantities than they were shipping it against Colombia, although the evidence of the Neymar footage makes it’s hard not to agree with Ronaldo — the original of the species — who raged that Zuninga’s ferocious knee in the back was an act of malicious intent.

The Colombian has since declared that he meant no harm but then, he would say that, wouldn’t he, especially since he has now become such a universal hate figure that he would probably be wise to seek protective custody in his neighbouring homeland for a while and maybe — just to be sure, to be sure — reemerge at a later date with a new identity.

Once the news broke later on Friday that Neymar’s World Cup was over, the national mood lurched from shock and anger to grief and despair and, again, with all the familiar trappings of a seismic affair of state: the Presidential rallying call; the distraught fans massing outside the hospital; the messages of condolence flooding in from celebrities around the world; audiences in tears on television shows; the interruption of the schedules to show live pictures of the fallen hero being choppered away on a stretcher from Brazil’s training camp; and, of course, the brave but sad-eyed video message to his beloved people from the man himself.

If you were so inclined, you could even go online and find that someone out here has helpfully put together a compilation of tiny Brazilian kids in various states of emotional distress at hearing the news of Neymar’s rude departure from the Copa Do Mundo. It’s unbearably cute stuff, if not perhaps wholly faithful to the good Dr Spock’s strictures on responsible parenting.

And still the Neymar tsunami shows no sign of receding. Yesterday’s Sunday papers here in Rio struggled to make space for anything else, one title stretching more than a bit to gain an edge on its rivals with the shock-horror headline: “Blow Suffered By Neymar Banned In MMA” (or Mixed Martial Arts, also known as Ultimate Fighting). ‘O Dia’ adopted the sombre approach, devoting the front page of its sports section to a lengthy quote from Neymar’s video message in white type against a black background. Elsewhere, the official World Cup mascot, normally a cheery little chap by the name of Fuelco The Armadillo — bear with me, please — was given a dramatic makeover so that he was now portrayed with head bowed, tears streaming down his face.

‘Lance’ was the only paper I could see which opted for a radically different approach yet one which still served to reinforce the impression of a news event with hydra-headed implications. On its front page, pride of place was given to an Argentinian supporter in the crowd at Saturday’s game against Belgium holding up a hand-painted sign reading: ‘Fuerza Neymar’. The subtext was clear, if scarcely scientifically-based: Neymar’s unhappy fate had even transcended the famously bitter rivalry between the noisy neighbours.

Mind, you still had to wade through quite a few pages of the Brazilian papers before you’d find mention of the fact that Argentina too have suffered their own significant loss, with Angel Di Maria ruled out of their semi-final against the Netherlands on Wednesday.

Before that, it’s Brazil v Germany tomorrow, completing a classic semi-final pairing — at least on paper — of new world versus old world superpowers. Much to look forward to then, but that’s got to be for another day. Today, we are still living in Neymar’s world, or rather the one just recently vacated by Neymar, which amounts to the same thing. For example, this just in: as I write, pictures have been released of Neymar back on his feet, taking his first tentative steps on a treadmill, his body wired up to all sorts of monitors, a white-coated medical attendant close at hand as well as, inevitably, a camera crew.

Frankly, there are times here in this mad, bad, beautiful to know country that a man can feel proud he comes from little old Ireland where we always try to keep things in proportion and would never spectacularly lose the run of ourselves if, say, our most famous player missed out on a World C... Oops.


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