RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazil talisman Neymar Jr would've been paralysed for the rest of his life if Colombia defender Zuniga had hit him just 2.3cm higher during Brazil vs Colombia's quarter-final, doctors said after the World Cup witnessed the exit of one of its star players.
Neymar himself feared the worst after the tackle as he reportedly told Brazilian left back Marcelo he couldn't feel his legs moments after a nasty challenge by Zuniga led to a broken vertebra and most definitely the end of Neymar's World Cup stint.
However, some in the country still believe in the impossible and improbable -- a Neymar comeback in the final if Brazil make it past the Germans and a Brazil victory with or without Neymar.
Just minutes before the challenge, Brazilians were seen unrestrained on the streets of Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, as they were well on their way to victory with a 2-1 lead against Colombia. Heavily guarded by police and army personnel, a sense of volatility enveloped the streets of Rio as one walked down the streets in utter amazement. Anything was possible. Anything.
Tens of thousands chanted famous Brazilian songs. "We are Brazilian and we are proud to be Brazilian," being one of the more popular ones being shouted out by men, women, children of all ages at the top of their lungs.
And yet, it only took one moment to change all of that. One replay of the Zuniga challenge, which seemed more like a Muay Thai move, was enough for the cariocas, residents of Rio de Janeiro, to realise that something was terribly wrong; that despite being on their way into the semi final, they had lost the man who is often seen as the rightful heir to Brazilian football legend Pele.
Moments after Neymar was hauled off the pitch, a doctor ruled that he would not be able to play any more World Cup matches – a thought that was almost unfathomable for Brazilians.
Reactions to Neymar's untimely departure from the world's most watched sporting event have been intense and divided to say the least.
Many are at a loss to explain where this injury has left Brazil at a crucial stage in the tournament.
"We will never lose hope but it has upset the entire nation. The foul seemed premeditated and unnecessary," said Edmar, a physiotherapist in Rio de Janeiro.
Teams are generally vague when it comes to revealing information about the injury status of their players but in the case of Neymar, the verdict was fairly straightforward: his World Cup was over.
Be that as it may, there is still a sense of hope among Brazilians that the star dribbler will somehow make a miraculous return. A number of unsubstantiated reports have helped encourage this kind of wishful thinking. Some believe that Brazil coach Scolari may be exaggerating the depth of the injury just to reignite the faith of the Brazilians in the final.
"I know that he (Neymar) will be back for the final," said Tiago, a law student at a local university in Rio de Janeiro.
Some, however, are already preparing for the worst. They believe that not only will Neymar's absence lead to a Brazil defeat tomorrow against Germany, they might also have to bear the thought of their arch nemesis, Argentina, going through to the final at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
"The only way Brazilians can deal with Argentina being in the final is if Brazil is also in the final and we win," said Lucas, a teacher in São Paulo, adding that he would rather see a European team win the final than Argentina take the glory.
Others in the financial hub of Brazil, São Paulo, were more optimistic about Brazil's chances despite Neymar and star defender Thiago Silva's absence tomorrow.
"We have never lost to Germany in the World Cup and tomorrow will certainly not be the first time it happens," said Leonardo, who coaches football at a local high school.
There is no telling what tomorrow's semi final may bring to an eerily confident yet nervous nation but there is no doubt that all else will be put on hold for 90 minutes or more tomorrow.
For now, a nation of close to 200 million will have to wait with bated breath to see whether they even need their shining star, Neymar, to make it to the final of the World Cup with the unmatchable advantage of playing in their own backyard.
1962: Brazil lost Pelé, won the World Cup
Some Brazilian fans are hoping for a 1962-inspired win, when the team lost their star player Pelé to an injury halfway through a match with the Czech Republic, in similar fashion to Neymar's untimely departure from the World Cup.
His replacement -- 22-year-old Amarildo aka 'The Possessed' -- went on to score the two winning goals against Spain in the next match, as well as one in the final of the World Cup, claimed by Brazil for the second time.
Neymar issues statement
Meanwhile, Neymar issued a statement via Facebook on Tuesday thanking his fans across the globe for their messages, adding that he would like to be in the field at the final next Sunday.
"I wanted to be able to speak more than one language to thank everyone," he said.
Neymar mentioned in the statement that he would be among the 200 million fans watching the Brazil vs Germany game off the field today.
He asked his fans to continue praying for him. "I want very, very much to be with everyone (fans and my teammates) next Sunday in the field ... at the maracana," he concluded.
A shorter version of this story was published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2014.
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