Brazil turned match into a war so they have to accept casualties
A game plan based on beating up Colombia was never going to end well
Brazil’s Fernandinho commits one of several fouls on Colombia’s James Rodriguez during the World Cup quarter-final in Fortaleza. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters.
The car was speeding down Rio’s eastern motorway in the direction of Copacabana. The driver dodged from lane to lane but he wasn’t paying any attention to the road. Instead his eyes were fixed on the little TV screen suspended from the windshield. The habit of watching television while driving at high speed is disturbingly common in Brazil. The car zoomed into the tunnel on Avenida Princesa Isabela and I thought of that other princess, who died many years ago.
The TV was showing A Falta.
Neymar braces to shield the ball, Juan Camilo Zúñiga jumps and his knee crunches into Neymar’s lower back. The next image is of Neymar, his chin buried in the grass, screaming in pain. The voiceover was saying things like “agressão” and “violencia”.
“Assassinato!” the driver shouted.
It was an insensitive choice of word considering Colombia’s history at the World Cup, but Brazil takes its own World Cups rather seriously. This is a country in which a nationally famous playwright, Nelson Rodrigues, can, without much irony, refer to the defeat in the 1950 World Cup final as “our Hiroshima”. The footage of Zúñiga breaking Neymar’s back has become Brazil’s Zapruder film.
It was the second day of the World Cup quarter finals but Messi, Robben and the rest seemed like intruders on private grief. At half-time in the first quarter-final between Argentina and Belgium, Brazilian TV did not show a second of replays or analysis.
Broken princeNobody cared about Higuain’s goal. Instead they cut straight to a live news feed that showed several men standing around beside a helicopter in which, viewers understood, the young prince of Brazilian football lay broken.
Eventually one guy shuffled to one side and the camera caught a glimpse of Neymar’s face in the shadows. Somehow he knew he was on TV and he lifted his hand, the pulse monitor still attached to his index finger, and gave a thumbs up.
Before the Netherlands-Costa Rica game that afternoon, Neymar released a video thanking the nation for its support and promising that the remaining 22 players of Brazil would go on to win the World Cup. Even with eyes reddened and puffy from crying, he showed himself to be a remarkably natural television communicator. He is this country’s Princess Diana and also its Bill Clinton.
When the feed cut back to the studio, grief-stricken women were wiping away tears. The audience rose to applaud and chant “Neymar! Neymar! Neymar!” Aliens could have invaded Brazil on Friday evening and it wouldn’t have made the front page of any Saturday newspaper. The attention of 200 million people was focused on the monstrous injustice of Neymar’s injury.
Great warriorPresident Dilma Rousseff sent him an open letter, hailing him as a great warrior who brought joy to the people’s souls, and pronouncing herself his number one fan. Companies took out full-page ads with such slogans as, “Força, moleque” (something like ‘Come on, kid’). By the tone of the media coverage, it seemed as though this was the single worst thing ever to happen in Brazil.
Poor Zúñiga has become an instant national hate figure. Ronaldo called the challenge “evil”. The Colombian released a statement saying that Neymar was one of the best players in the world and he never meant to hurt him. Fifa responded to the Brazilian outrage by opening an investigation into the foul, which had not been penalised in any way by the referee.
Brazil wants justice for Neymar and Zúñiga is the scapegoat but the real culprit is the man in their own dugout. Maybe Big Phil should have considered the downside of a game plan that hinged on beating up the opposition’s best players. There was always a chance Colombia would take it lying down. Brazil had turned the match into a war. When you go to war, you have to accept that there are going to be casualties.