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World Cup 2014
 
WORLD CUP 2014

Brazil can find a cause to win after the loss of Neymar

Published on Jul 7, 2014 8:13 PM
 

NEYMAR da Silva Santos Junior is not to be confused with a footballer when in fact he is a Brazilian talisman. He is a man turned into a national charm. He is the equivalent of Lionel Messi and a version of Kiwi rugby star Richie McCaw. To appreciate what they mean is to consider a clever headline from India when their greatest cricketer was about to be turned into a comic book: "We don't need Superman - we have Tendulkar!"

The football talisman is more than a goal-scorer. In his presence lies reassurance, in his every move lies faith. He is saviour and magician. To play against him is apparently unnerving, to play alongside him is akin to wearing a protective amulet. Only the great are stalked by myths.

Now, the talisman has fallen, and for Brazil it feels as if confidence has collapsed. If they rise from this to win the Cup it will be an escape so astonishing that even Harry Houdini might applaud.

In a practical sense it suits Brazil to know that Neymar cannot play. He is not half-fit but fully out and this certainty brings clarity. Else so powerful is the aura of the talisman that desperation can blunt common sense. Even if injured he will insist he can play and who dares say no, as if half-fit he is twice any man.

Before the 1954 Cup final, Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas had an injured ankle and rumour swirled over his possible presence. Eventually, wrote Brian Glanville in The History Of The World Cup, he "did play and it would prove a manifest mistake". In 1998, after talk of a fit and a fight before the match, Brazil's Ronaldo also played lethargically in a final when every logical reason suggested he should not.

With Neymar there will be no emotional arguments that he must play, no turbulence within a confused team over who is playing. There is despair, yet there is decision. Now Luiz Felipe Scolari must produce the finest psychological trick of his coaching life: Turn opportunity lost into opportunity gained. Before they arrive on the field, Brazil's semi-final must be won in the dressing room.

At the 1980 Winter Olympics, with his unfancied US ice-hockey team about to confront the dominant Soviets, coach Herb Brooks countered stress with inspiration and told them: "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours."

This is what coaches do. Take adversity and spin it into a cause. Take misfortune and paint on a silver lining. Take Brazil's favourite tag and twist it slyly into underdog status. Take a nation's renewed passion and surf on it.

Symbolism, at such a time, also has a value beyond easy measure. In 1995, before South Africa's World Cup rugby final at home against the awesome Kiwis, President Nelson Mandela walked unannounced into the dressing room in a Springbok jersey. As Francois Pienaar, the captain, put it: "Unbelievable, incredible emotion."

Perhaps Scolari will flirt with that theme and get Neymar to address the team - even via video link - before their semi-final. Lost skill, after all, can sometimes be compensated for by emotion: You play for yourself, team, nation and also Neymar.

One man's absence is also another man's chance. Widely summoned is the memory of the 1962 Cup, when Pele tore a thigh muscle and Amarildo took his place, scoring a goal in the final while setting up another. Yet that was a team of Garrincha and Vava, this of Fred and Jo. Still Scolari must stroke egos - you are great, you are the one - and out of Neymar's shadow someone must step up to become his nation's timely son.

As Brazil walk into the unknown, this is football at its most fascinating. And yet most tragic. The exceptional athlete can live with defeat; it is not being able to at least chase victory which is unbearable for Neymar. And also us.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

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This is what coaches do. Take adversity and spin it into a cause. Take misfortune and paint on a silver lining. Take Brazil's favourite tag and twist it slyly into underdog status. Take a nation's renewed passion and surf on it.

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