For a short while, the soaring ball commanded all eyes, including referee Carlos Carballo’s and those of the hard-tackling players around him.
So when Brazil’s Neymar Jr went down in a curl of cries and tears after being kneed in his spine by Colombian defender Juan Zuniga, few noticed. Not even the paramedics in Brazil’s dugout, and certainly not the home fans at the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza.
A howling Neymar was later stretchered off, but few seemed to realise the depth of his despair.
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After all, it was still the 88th minute of a most tenuous game of football and a shaky Seleçao, narrowly ahead at this point by two goals to one, still had some defending to do in their bid to proceed to the semi-finals of the World Cup — a home World Cup — for the first time in a dozen years.
They did, six minutes later (including the four added minutes of injury time). But the celebrations never commenced on the streets of Brazil as the relief of seeing their team survive was short lived.
The Neymar situation had finally dawned on them. In the crowded fan fests around the country, the large screens continued to flicker with moving images well after the match was over, with minute-by-minute updates of Neymar’s journey to a private hospital.
In the thousands, they crowded around giant televisions, clutching unrefilled beer cups and watching helplessly as their star striker writhed in pain.
Soaking up his tears with a handkerchief, Neymar squirmed in his gurney as it was hauled out of the ambulance. And then Brazil’s big hope disappeared through the hospital door, away from the chasing cameras.
When the screens faded to black, a country held its breath. A few minutes later, a news flash made it suffocate with words few were ready to comprehend. “Neymar fratura a tercero vértebra lombar e está fora da Copa.” “Está fora da Copa” — out of the World Cup.
Immediately, it was confirmed live from outside the hospital by Rodrigo Lasmar, Brazil’s team doctor. “This news is not easy but he will not be available for the rest of the World Cup,” he said mournfully. “Neymar has a broken vertebra. He will be out for four to six weeks.”
It is a crippling blow to Brazil’s future in this competition as Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side has now lost their best player to injury, just minutes after losing their captain Thiago Silva to a one-match suspension, leaving him out of the semi-final against Germany.
Central defender Silva, who scored from a Neymar corner to put Brazil ahead against Colombia on Friday, had only himself to blame as he foolishly cramped goalkeeper David Ospina during a goal kick to receive his second yellow card of the knock-outs.
But on an injured Neymar’s behalf, the fans blamed everyone — from Zuniga to the Spanish official Carballo.
“I never meant to hurt a player. It was a normal move,” Zuniga pleaded later. “I was on the field, playing for my country, and tackles happen. It was not with the intent to injure.
I was just defending my shirt.” Zuniga may have been doing his duty, but many feel that the referee wasn’t doing his. Zuniga’s knee-high challenge did not see Carballo reach out for his pocket — a moment that aptly summed up his match-long allergy to summoning the warning cards.
“The referee is completely to blame. He should have warned our players first for the nasty challenges we committed on James (Rodriguez, Colombia’s number 10),” said Oswaldo, who sells bootleg Brazil jerseys in Pelourinho, Salvador.
“But he didn’t, creating an atmosphere of ‘anything goes’. In the end, we paid for it with Neymar. Now who will buy my No.10 jerseys?”
Almost all the yellow shirts in Oswaldo’s trolley had ‘Neymar Jr 10’ printed on them, just as they were omnipresent on the backs of almost every Selecao fan in the country. When a few of them were asked if they were going to replace it with another name and number for the remaining Brazil games, they shrugged.
Quite like coach Scolari at the press conference. “I don’t know who will replace him,” he said. “But I have been saying this for three matches now,Neymar has been hunted.”
The “hunters” have cost Scolari an irreplaceable member. But far more crucially, they have cost the World Cup its face and Brazil its soul.