Either way, no matter which combustible angle rises from the gurgling angst that is Brazil in July 2014, I’m worried. If the Selecao somehow overcome the loss of the gifted, 22-year-old, Beats-By-Dre-wearing prodigy, Neymar, and win their sixth World Cup next weekend in Rio de Janeiro, the natives may burn down the country. And if the Selecao happen to lose Tuesday to Germany or next weekend in the Cup final because they don’t have Neymar, who is out with a fractured vertebra and wearing a brace, well, the natives may burn down the country.
We can debate forever whether Colombia’s Juan Camilo Zuniga was dirty when he took a running jump for a ball, leaped, kneed Neymar in the back and finished him off with a two-handed shove to the neck. I say it borderline thuggery, though within the physical context of a game in which 54 calls were called, prompting FIFA to launch a probe of referee Carlos Velasco Carballo. FIBA may have only itself for blame, as Neymar has been the target of rough tactics throughout the World Cup. Sounds like an old-fashioned argument about whether the NBA playoffs are too wicked. Most likely, the investigation comes more out of concern about potential national violence than any consternation about the ref’s work.
Let’s not be inconsistent about this. If you love the action in this World Cup because it is faster-paced and more rugged than you remember, then you can’t complain too much, as a neutral observer, about the Zuniga-Neymar collision. The Brazilian captain, Thiago Silva, went so far to dismiss that the collision was an attempt to injure Neymar in the 88th minute of Brazil’s 2-1 quarterfinal victory. “Zuniga does not have any nastiness in him,’’ Silva said. “What he did, I think, was rash. … I know that in these situations it is difficult to get the ball off Neymar.’’
Said Zuniga: “I didn’t mean to hurt him.’’
No one in the host nation is buying it. As Neymar literally cried out in pain, the Brazilian people were outraged. For all their excitement about being two victories from a futebol dream — winning the World Cup in one’s country — the joy has been tempered by the loss of the global superstar who has rescued the team through tenuous moments throughout the tournament. “ A Rio de Janeiro news outlet described Zuniga’s act as “criminal,’’ and another called him a coward. The country’s president, Dilma Rousseff, said her heart was “injured’’ in a letter to Neymar.
Said Neymar, who was hospitalized and won’t play for two months: “They took the dream of competing in a World Cup final away from me, but the dream of being a World Cup champion is not over. There are still two games left, and I am certain my companions will do everything they can to win this trophy.”
There is precedent that provides hope as an adhesive. In 1962, the great Pele suffered a leg injury in the second game. Brazil won the World Cup without him. “Remember 1962,’’ Carlos Alberto told the disheartened masses on Brazilian TV.
“There are seven steps, and we’ve already climbed five,’’ said Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, attempting to calm a nation.
I am not trying to invoke humor in speaking of Brazilian anxiety. Amid pre-Cup concerns about crime, gang violence and transportation and logistical issues, Brazil has managed to pull off a relatively crisis-free event so far. There was the collapse of an overpass, built for the World Cup, that killed at least two people in Belo Horizonte, but resentment largely has subsided about government corruption and massive amounts of money spent on this quadrennial spectacle. Why? Because the beloved Selecao have been winning.
But if they lose? What if they fall at home to Germany, which could happen without Neymar and Silva, who was suspended after a dumb foul led to a yellow card?
I’d get out of there, now. It’s been cool, you know, but a Rio Riot does not sound like fun.