Neymar is out of the World Cup.
There isn’t really a historical equivalent that does this moment justice. As ESPNFC’s Fernando Duarte wrote yesterday, “There is no point in comparing this situation with Pele's injury in 1962 because that tournament was contested by a Seleção that not only boasted the likes of Garrincha and Didi, they were also peppered with veterans from Brazil's successful 1958 campaign.”
But football is an odd game. Colombia were hailed as almost better in the absence of Falcao, with responsibility placed evenly throughout the team and James Rodriguez stepping up to provide a major World Cup surprise. Until last night, when some openly wondered if things would be different “had Falcao been fit.”
In the long run, stars win you things. But the World Cup is not about the “long run.”
Neymar is clearly Brazil’s best player. He played four key passes according to whoscored.com’s Opta stats, and took three shots, the same as Hulk. He did equally as well against Chile after a phenomenal group stage in which he made the difference against Cameroon and Croatia. Even in Brazil’s 0-0 draw with Mexico he was the most creative player on the pitch.
But compare Neymar to Lionel Messi’s influence for Argentina. Eight key passes against Switzerland, with an assist to Di Maria. A brace against Nigeria and ore than twice the number of shots on anyone else in the side against Iran and the game-winning goal.
Neymar was at the centre of Brazil, he completed Brazil, but he did not quite carry Brazil in the same way Messi has clearly carried Argentina this tournament.
There are a number of possibilities to ponder ahead of Tuesday’s semifinal between Brazil and Germany in Belo Horizonte. One is that an already weak Brazil goes down to an impossibly deep and well-defended team without the creative spark of their 22-year old wunderkind.
The other is that Brazil embraces their underdog status in the absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva and flips the script against one of the strongest European sides in World Cup history. It’s easy to forget that Fred was Brazil’s highest scorer in the Confederations Cup last year with five goals to Neymar’s four. Easy because Fred hasn’t been nearly at his best this tournament, along with Hulk and Jo (well, Jo is at his normal).
Tuesday could be a moment when Brazil could prove there really is a depth of talent in this team, and maintains an unbeaten on home soil record that has lasted for nearly forty years. A moment in which Hulk dances his way to the byline and David Luiz makes another impossible run forward. In which both Hulk and Fred finally start finishing properly. A moment to rally the World Cup hosts in a way even Neymar couldn’t quite do up until this point.
Better players win you games in the long run, but in the World Cup it’s all about the team and the day. Neymar’s early exit, while a shame, could prove a rallying cry for Big Phil Scolari’s beleaguered Brazil. Their World Cup isn’t over, if they want it.