This is one of those moments like Kevin Durant’s beautifully delivered 2014 NBA MVP acceptance speech where no matter what fans think about an individual athlete, we feel immense respect. Neymar is a very good soccer player but the young Brazilian is an even better competitor.
His post-injury video message overflows with emotion. Neymar cares about his team and his country, not just in words, but in his heart. That’s how it looks at least. He consistently shows it on and off the pitch. This is the kid who’s talked to his dad on the phone before every match since he was five. He insists on wearing a shirt emblazoned with “Neymar Jr.” out of respect for his old man. This is the kid who shirks comparisons to Pelé, saying “Pele is a God. I am a footballer.” He would rather be compared to Brazil’s other mythic hero, Garrincha, known as “o Alegria do Povo,” The Joy of the People. This is the kid who, in the buildup to the World Cup said:
There is no pressure when you are living your dream. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid. Today my dream is coming true, I’m playing the matches I’ve always wanted to be playing…
I don’t want to be the best player, I don’t want to be the top scorer. All I want is to win the World Cup title. It’s what I always dreamed about. It doesn’t matter how it happens, I just want to win the title…
All I want to do is play football and help my teammates and my team, not only by scoring goals but also by doing everything possible to help Brazil win.
Do athletes ever speak as honestly? This is a 22-year old kid. He is..was…trying to win the world cup for a nation that might care more about the trophy than anyone else on the planet and certainly does care more when the tournament is played at their stadiums in their cities.
Thinking about Neymar’s injury, I cannot help but sadden up, and ask a kind of religious, upward gazing Why? It’s not just his life; it’s not just soccer; Neymar’s presence on the pitch and Brazil’s run through its own diverse, corruption-plagued, beautiful country seem to matter on a grander scale. It’s not even just about Brazil: They now have to win for Chile and Colombia, two other talented South American teams who played two of the best games in the tournament against the home side. Neymar was supposed to forge ahead for Chile’s firecracker Alexis Sánchez and Colombia’s inspirational James Rodriguez. At least that’s what was supposed to happen in the fantasy narrative spinning and then unraveling out of my head. Shit happens.
Colombia match. 87th minute. Brazil defending like mad. Turning back a barrage of Colombian attacks that had already yielded a goal on a penalty. Thousands of people holding their breath or releasing it in nervous screaming in Fortaleza, a popular tourist destination on Brazil’s northern coast. Millions more fans holding their collective breath in bars and on beaches and in their homes all across Brazil, Colombia, and around the world. Why did this match matter so much?
It was more than just a heated world cup quarterfinal. Watching the Germany-France matchup earlier on that fine American Independence Day was like going on the roof of your overpriced Manhattan apartment building on July 4th, expecting fireworks, and then realizing that it was actually July 3rd. Germany was good like always, just completely devoid of creative spark, like always. France didn’t even put up a fight, a product of what French fans have come to know as “the German complex.” Begun in World War I, this Freudian phenomenon has created a rivalry between France and Germany similar to the mid-2000s “rivalry” between Andy Roddick and Roger Federer. The perennial loser may have the talent to win, but who’s your daddy?
Luckily, if you go out for fireworks on July 3rd and don’t see any, your disappointment will be short-lived, because July 4th is right around the corner. The big-time July 4th match of this July 4th was Brazil vs. Colombia. The two teams had been playing inspired soccer up to this point in the tournament, Brazil led by our fallen hero and Colombia brought into the spotlight by maybe-just-as-good rising star James Rodriguez. That’s pronounced Ha-mes for you auditory learners. James vs. Neymar. The matchup everyone wanted to see, and while Neymar had his inevitable moments of brilliance, James was more central to his team and was more dynamic than his Brazilian rival throughout the contest.
It was an evenly fought battle—50-50 possession and almost identical shot totals—but Brazil’s team was stronger than Colombia for much of the match. Another early first-half corner kick assist from Neymar to a defender, this time Thiago Silva, added onto by David Luiz’s magical free kick in the 69th minute put Brazil ahead comfortably. Until the seat Brazil was sitting on began to slip away like a child’s dreams, into the hot summer air. James scored on a penalty in the 80th minute, Neymar was out in the 87th, and Brazil was on the ropes. The final whistle came as a relief for A Seleção and the victory felt almost a consolation, as Neymar’s condition was unclear at the time of the final whistle.
Fans of Brazil can be thankful that Neymar’s injury was not worse, that the young star with so much ahead of him avoided a Jason Street or Boobie Williams situation. They can also be thankful for the victory against a talented and gunning Colombian squad. The reaction of James Rodriguez to the loss shows just how much these matches matter to the players and the people, and David Luiz’s supportive response to James’ emotion shows the humanity and empathy ingrained in the game. Brazil still has a chance to win it all, and they have dedicated the next game to their fallen star. Blocking their way stands the German Machine, The German Complex. It will be an epic clash between Europe and South America, and only one nation’s imagination will be propelled into the final where the realization of the dream will be so, so close.
by Jake Montgomery