BRASILIA, BRAZIL – The news that Neymar had broken a vertebra and will miss the rest of the World Cup was a huge blow for Brazil and its hopes of lifting a sixth title on home soil.
In a fractious, often ugly game, Brazil’s No. 10 took a knee to the small of his back from Juan Camilo Zuniga late in their quarterfinal match against Colombia and was stretchered from the field of play. Fans held a vigil outside the hospital in Fortaleza while television cameras followed the Barcelona forward from stadium to hospital and back to the Brazilian team camp.
The celebrations across the country over the quarterfinal win were cut short upon the news that their star man wouldn’t again appear in the competition. A nation so predisposed to festivities—particularly regarding the successes of the national side— grieved Neymar’s injury. In the remaining quarterfinal games, fans held aloft messages of support while chanting his name.
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While he was quiet in the quarterfinal against Los Cafeteros, eclipsed by the tournament’s best player James Rodriguez, Neymar has been instrumental in Brazil’s run to the last four of the competition and is irreplaceable for the Selecao. With those preferred to play up front for Brazil either struggling to find any form whatsoever or blowing hot and cold, the loss of the national team’s talismanic forward will hit Brazil hard in the semifinals versus Germany.
Willian has played a bit part in the tournament so far, most notably missing from the spot in the penalty win over Chile in the Round of 16, while diminutive winger Bernard has barely featured. Both are capable of replacing Neymar in a football sense and at their best both are match-winners.
The greatest loss, however, is Neymar’s ability to galvanize his team. He dragged an otherwise ordinary Santos side—Ganso aside—to the Copa Libertadores title in 2011 at just 19 years of age. He has performed on the big stage without a hint of pressure showing. In fact, he thrives in big games.
Within Luis Felipe Scolari’s system, Neymar is key. Both goals against Colombia came from set pieces—Neymar won and delivered the corner for Thiago Silva’s opener. He is the second-most fouled player in the competition, with only Greece’s Giorgios Samaras winning more free kicks for his team. Moreover, he is often the focal point and vital component of Scolari’s counter-attacking philosophy, either starting moves from deep inside his half or finishing them at the opposite end. His pace and ability to move with the ball at speed affords a dynamism and explosive transitions that others can’t.
“Neymar was our benchmark, one of our references because he is a player who makes a difference in any team… we’ve lost something we don’t want to miss especially for the semi-final and the final” said Scolari in an interview given to Spanish football newspaper Marca following the Colombia match.
The choice is a simple one for the Selecao boss ahead of an enticing encounter in the last four against Germany in Belo Horizonte—impish winger Bernard or Chelsea’s Willian. Willian, more streetwise and robust, is the favourite to get the nod from Scolari but Bernard has qualities that can help unlock a defensive unit lacking any real pace.
Joachim Low’s team has improved considerably as the tournament has progressed, culminating in a comfortable win over France at the Maracana in the last eight. But Germany has shown defensive frailties in recent times both in friendlies before the World Cup and during the tournament itself. Algeria demonstrated just how the Germans could be cut open with quick transitions against a high defensive line. In the group stage, Ghana exposed those same weaknesses. Philip Lahm’s reinstallation at right back helped to solidify things against the French but is still susceptible.
Of course, Germany is without one of its star players in Marco Reus, who was ruled out with an ankle injury following the friendly against Armenia at the beginning of June. The loss of Reus was a blow to Germany, but one more easily absorbed given the depth of talent at their disposal and their ability to plan their strategy without him. Brazil has been afforded no such luxury.
“We simply cannot overstate his importance to the side,” legend Zico told the Observer.
Whether Brazil can realize its dream of becoming Hexacampeao without Neymar remains to be seen, but with the loss of their best player, things have become considerably more difficult for the hosts.
Paul Sarahs is an English-based journalist who is covering the World Cup for Sportsnet in Brazil. Follow Paul on Twitter.