Despite sadness, Brazil optimistic it will win World Cup even without Neymar

Jubilant Brazilian fans in this party city banged drums, blew horns, set off firecrackers, sang and danced until the wee hours Saturday morning in celebration of Brazil’s advancement to Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal against Germany.

They seemed oblivious to the fact that their talisman, their dazzling poster boy, Neymar, had been ruled out of the tournament with a fractured vertebra after taking a knee to the back from Colombian defender Juan Zuniga in the closing minutes of Friday’s 2-1 quarterfinal win for Brazil.

By daybreak, the gravity of Neymar’s injury was the talk of the nation. It dominated news broadcasts. The devastating headlines were plastered on the front pages of every Brazilian newspaper on sale at sidewalk kiosks:

“A Dor Do Brasil!” (Pain of Brazil)

“Vamos Sem Ele … E Por Ele!” (We’ll go on without him … and for him)

“Covardia Tira Neymar Da Copa!” (Cowardice tosses Neymar from the Cup)

Up and down Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva in Rio’s Leblon district, Brazilians stopped at the newsstands to read the coverage, which included diagrams of a spine, and many pages of analysis of how the team would go on without its biggest star.

The hopes of this soccer-crazed host country were resting on the back of the slender 5-9 striker, who makes millions at Spanish giant Barcelona. His name and No. 10 are on the backs of nearly every Brazilian fan. Everywhere you turn, from Sao Paulo to Manaus to Recife to CopaCabana, fans of every shape and age are wearing bright yellow No. 10 Neymar jerseys. Babies in strollers are wearing them. Hairdressers are wearing them. Waiters, elderly couples, bank tellers. Neymar is everywhere.

His face smiles out from billboards, TV commercials and life-sized cardboard cutouts.

On Saturday, all the images were of Neymar grimacing in pain.

A team statement read: “Neymar is out of the World Cup. The player suffered a fracture of the third vertebra and will not be able to recover in time to compete in the remaining two games of the World Cup — the recovery time predicted by the Brazilian team’s medical department is four weeks.”

Neymar’s teammates vowed to beat Germany and win the Cup in Neymar’s honor.

“It hurts, and I’m without words,” defender David Luiz said upon hearing Neymar was ruled out. “It is every boy’s dream to play in the World Cup. All of Brazil will suffer with the loss of its idol. We are going to play for him, and for all Brazilians, I promise.”

Captain Thiago Silva, who also will miss the game after being suspended for a second yellow card, said: “It is a loss that can galvanize our team. We will win the Cup for Neymar.”

And Fred added: “We have one more reason to play with heart in this Cup. Neymar, rest assured that our group loves you and will give life to win this title for you. You were and continue to be the ace and the soul of our team. The whole of Brazil is praying for you!”

In a televised statement Saturday, Neymar said: “My dream is not over yet. It was interrupted by one move, but it will continue and I’m certain that my teammates will do whatever possible so I can fulfill my dream of being a champion.”

Neymar, 22, is tied for second in the tournament with four goals. He did not score in the past two games, against Chile and Colombia. Although fans were crushed by Neymar’s injury, plenty remain optimistic that Brazil can win the Cup without him.

“I am very sad for the news about Neymar, and everybody in Brazil is talking about it,” said Sergio Mendes, whose chihuahua was wearing a tiny Neymar jersey. “But Brazil can still win the World Cup without him. It will be more difficult, but we can do it. I am old enough to remember the 1962 World Cup in Chile, when Pelé, the best player in Brazil history, got injured. Everybody was shocked and depressed, but other players substituted very well and we won without Pelé.”

In that World Cup, Pelé tore a leg muscle during Brazil’s second match, a 0-0 tie with Czechoslovakia. He was unable to play the rest of the tournament, but his replacement, Amarildo, and Garrincha played outstanding the rest of the way, and Brazil raised the Cup.

“The same thing can happen now, but Germany is, in my mind, the second-best team to Brazil, so it will be a very tough game without Neymar,” Mendes said.

Adriana Gottschalk and her son, Lucas, who were on their way to the beach Saturday morning, also remain hopeful.

“Neymar is the best player on our team, and all Brazilians are dependent on him, but the team knows how to play without him,” said Lucas, whose father is German-Brazilian but says the family will be rooting for Brazil. “When he first fell I didn’t think it was such a serious injury because Neymar falls all the time. We were very sad to hear the news.”

Brazil’s team has not been as stylish or dominant as it had hoped thus far, with an own-goal against Croatia, a 0-0 draw with Mexico, a penalty-kick shootout against Chile and just one free-kick goal against Colombia. But Neymar’s creativity always gave Brazilians the hope that something special could happen.

Now, the burden falls on the rest of the team.

Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has a few options. He can replace Neymar with Chelsea playmaker Oscar, who is comfortable attacking from all over the field. Hulk, Oscar’s Chelsea teammate, Willian, and 5-5 winger Bernard also could prove pivotal in Neymar’s absence.

“Whoever comes in in his place has to play as part of the team and beat Germany,” Oscar said. “The best thing we do is play as a team, and I just hope that whoever comes in plays well.”

Neymar’s popularity across the world is evident in the outpouring of get-well messages.

“Neymar, I hope you recover very soon, my friend!” Neymar’s Barcelona teammate and Argentina superstar Lionel Messi wrote on his Facebook page.

“All our support to @neymarjr! #ForcaNeymar,” Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff wrote on Twitter.

Jamaican Olympic track champion Usain Bolt tweeted: “Very sad to hear the news of Neymar Jr. Have a quick recovery.”

The Heat’s LeBron James tweeted: “Hate to hear the news on Neymar! What a player. Have a speedy recovery/get well asap man! #He’sABeast #MyKid’sFavePlayer.”

Even German midfielder Mesut Ozil, who would have faced Neymar on Tuesday, was thinking of the injured Brazilian star. He tweeted: “Neymar. I am unhappy. Get well soon.”

Related stories from Miami Herald