High in the hills of Teresópolis, behind the police cordons and the backdrop of the Região Serrana, there was the sense of a team trying to show everything was OK, even if they might not actually believe itthemselves. The president, Dilma Rousseff, had sent her condolences. Pelé, Ronaldo and various football royalty had joined in the grieving process. Now, in a windy marquee at Granja Comary, two players sat on white plastic chairs and tried to convince us that Brazil without Neymar did not have to be a car without petrol.
They had their work cut out when, back at Copacabana, the sand sculptors had already turned Neymar’s happy face into a sad one and Luiz Felipe Scolari was telling Marca that it was a “catastrophe” for Brazil to lose their No10.
“Neymar is our benchmark. He is our reference because he always makes the difference. We have lost the one player we did not want to lose.”
Yet Brazil are not going to get past Germany in Tuesday’s semi-final by feeling sorry for themselves and that is why they brought out Willian and Bernard, the two players vying for Neymar’s place, to make their case that this team are still breathing.
But it was difficult. One of the first Brazilian journalists to raise his hand asked how a team with “Neymar-dependence” could possibly get by without him. Bernard, the player Scolari has described as having “joy in the legs”, was reminded of something he had said before the tournament, about the default setting of every player being to look for Neymar, every single time.
In half an hour of questions, Neymar was referenced, every single time. “It’s always going to be a weight,” Bernard said about the possibility of taking his place. It culminated in a question to Willian about whether the team would be seeing a psychologist to help get over their loss. Willian nodded. He expected there would be a group conversation after dinner.
The Chelsea player is the more likely choice, to the point that he was also asked about being nicknamed the “new Amarildo”, after the player who took over from the injured Pelé in 1962. Willian looked a little taken aback by that but, if playing the role of not-Neymar requires competitive courage, he does not look short of it. Willian missed one of the penalties in the shootout against Chile and, briefly, “lost it” on the pitch. And now? “If there was another penalty shootout today, I would still raise my hand and go for it, definitely.”
By his own admission, however, he would not be a like-for-like replacement. “There’s no comparing us. We have different styles. Yes, some things are similar, such as our speed and dribbling, but Neymar is a striker whereas I am more a midfielder who sets up others. Neymar scores a lot of goals, whereas I am more someone who serves my team-mates.”
The thinking is that Willian could come in on the right side, with Oscar moving into the more central Neymar role, but the two interchanging positions in the way that is often seen at Stamford Bridge.
“We played a lot together last season at Chelsea,” Willian said. “We were free to move around and we are very familiar with each other’s games. If Scolari does choose me, it won’t be a problem for us because we have had a year of playing together.”
All that really can be said for certain is that Brazil cannot mope any longer. “We have to be prepared,” Bernard said. “We are all very sad but we have to overcome it. This is a World Cup semi-final and the players have to be prepared, psychologically and emotionally.
“We have lots of other good players and we can still beat Germany and be the champions.”
On the steep, winding roads into Teresópolis, past Dedo de Deus (God’s Finger), Agulha do Diabo (Devil’s Needle) and the other peaks that make this Brazil’s mountain-climbing capital, the entrance to their training ground is dominated by a model – for no apparent reason – of the Incredible Hulk breaking out of his shirt. What Brazil need now is for the real-life Hulk to turn more of his chances into goals. Or for Fred, their increasingly maligned striker, to do something that can change perceptions of him.
As it stands, Fred tends to be talked about in a mocking tone by Brazil’s media and public, and a sympathetic one whenever his team-mates are asked to explain his difficulties. “We’re looking for Fred on the pitch, trying to find him,” Willian said. “We will keep on trying.”
Where Brazil have made themselves look slightly desperate – or at least worried – is by lodging an official appeal with Fifa about the yellow card that Thiago Silva picked up in the quarter-final against Colombia, when he blocked David Ospina from taking a quick goal-kick.
That booking means Silva will be suspended against Germany and there is a separate, and legitimate, issue here about whether two yellow cards in five games justifies ruling someone out of a semi-final.
Brazil’s case, all the same, is as flimsy as cigarette paper. Fifa do not entertain appeals for yellow cards unless there are outstanding circumstances, such as a case of mistaken identity, and that alone makes it fairly ludicrous if the fax from the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol is not directed to the nearest waste-paper basket.
Real Madrid tried, and failed, with a similar tactic after Xabi Alonso was ruled out of the Champions League final. This one deserves the same outcome unless Fifa wants to look even more erratic than we already knew.
In Silva’s absence, David Luiz will captain the team in Belo Horizonte. As for Neymar – yes, it always comes back to him – Scolari reported how the Barcelona player had feared something even worse in the immediate moments after Juan Zúñiga’s knee had rammed into his back. “Marcelo ran up to Neymar and asked him how he was,” the Brazil coach said.
“He told him: ‘I can’t feel my legs.’ There was a lot of confusion. It was a big shock, seeing Neymar being carried off on a stretcher, the pain he was in, the tears. But he will be with us if he can [against Germany], on the bench, or in the stands. We have already asked him to do this. If he can, I am certain he will be there.”