A nation holds its breath. Neymar lies prone on the turf at the Estadio Castalao in Fortaleza.
The Brazil attacker wails in excruciating pain after being levelled by a vicious knee in the back from Colombia’s Juan Camilo Zuniga.
The hosts lead 2-1 in a bruising World Cup quarter-final. But there are still four minutes to go. Neymar wants to get up. He wants to play on.
Marcelo pleads, “No, no, don’t move; wait for the doctors!”
Neymar nonetheless tries to rise, but is unable. “I can’t feel my legs,” he cries.
Marcelo, terrified, screams for immediate assistance. Amid the touchline chaos and confusion, the medics struggle to get on the field. Marcelo becomes frantic.
Amid widespread panic, Neymar is eventually stretchered from the field and rushed to the medical department within the stadium for immediate assessment.
Neymar is in agony. The medics suspect a serious back injury. The forward is transferred to the Hospital Sao Carlos in Fortaleza, where a crowd of well-wishers have already gathered outside, desperate to learn the condition of a national icon.
Brazil manage to see out the game against Colombia but there is an obvious fear that they will have to make do without their talisman for the semi-final showdown with Germany.
Rumours begin to swirl: ‘He’s okay; he could return for the final’; ‘No, his tournament is over; worse, he could end up in a wheelchair!’
Meanwhile, Neymar eagerly awaits the news of the numerous tests he has been forced to undergo. The doctors arrive. One of them tells him, “There is good news and bad news – which would you rather first?”
Neymar chooses the bad news. “Your World Cup is over.”
“And the good news?!” he asks, struggling to believe that there could be any.
“You’ll walk again. You’ve suffered a fractured vertebra but two centimetres to the right, and you would have been paralysed. Your career would have been over.”
Neymar feels blessed but that doesn’t stem the tears. He and his loved ones spend the next few days crying, distraught that his dream of leading Brazil to World Cup glory has been ended by injury.
On the night of July 8, 2014, an entire nation joins him in floods of tears.
The legendary Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues infamously opined, “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.”
Given his fondness for such hyperbole, one wonders what Rodrigues would have made of the 7-1 loss to Germany in Belo Horizonte.
In sporting terms, it was a humiliation of historic proportions: Brazil’s heaviest ever World Cup loss; their first at home in a competitive fixture for 39 years.
They had been 5-0 down inside 29 minutes. Some fans left before the break. Those that remained booed their side off at the interval. During the second half, they even cheered Germany’s goals.
Many fans threw their shirts off in disgust, others burned theirs, while one man rather bizarrely began munching on his flag.
There were fears of mass violence across Brazil. This, after all, was a nation beset by social inequality that had spent $11 billion on hosting the World Cup, sparking widespread protests at the Confederations Cup the year before.
Had it all been for this – a collective shaming before the watching world? There was no public disorder, though; just widespread sadness, disbelief and confusion.
“From the moment it was decided that the World Cup was to be played in Brazil, it was clear there would be a huge emotional burden,” former Selecao midfielder Mauro Says
Playing a World Cup anywhere is difficult, but in Brazil, with all the expectation of the fans, it was going to be even more difficult. The group arrived at that moment and just had a blackout.
“We never saw Brazil playing calmly, playing with joy; we saw the team tense, under pressure, moments where the players displayed their nerves, where they cried during the national anthem.”
The tears had been passed off as evidence of the players’ passion. In reality, they were the first signs of a group on the brink of an emotional breakdown.
Neymar, David Luiz and Julio Cesar cried before the penalty shootout against Chile. Thiago Silva was in such a state that he refused to take a spot-kick and the skipper sat alone on the sideline while they were being taken.
Coach Luis Felipe Scolari was worried and called in a psychologist. Nothing, though, could have braced Brazil’s players for what happened after Neymar went down injured in the closing stages of the 2-1 win over Colombia in the quarter-finals.
The No.10’s fitness became national news. The media frenzy sent the country into meltdown. It all became too much to take for Scolari’s squad.
Felipão’s (Scolari) work wasn’t that bad,” striker Jo said. “I just think we lacked concentration in the Germany game. It was well below normal.
The preparation for that game wasn’t the best. The reaction after losing Neymar could have been faster. We were too wrapped up in his injury, so our focus for that game was poor.
“But I must admit that the defeat was still difficult to explain, because it was really a fatality.”
It was certainly treated that way by the public and press alike. The media backlash was brutal. GloboEsporte labelled the loss to Germany as “The disgrace of all disgraces”. Lance! claimed it was “The biggest shame in history”.
Brazil still had another game to go, of course – the third place play-off, against Netherlands. They were in no fit state to play, though, and still appeared to be in a stupor as they slumped to a 3-0 loss.
Scolari promptly resigned, aware that even though it was he who had led Brazil to a fifth World Cup, in 2002, his reputation had been tarnished forever.
“I will be remembered as the coach to lose 7-1 but I knew that risk when I took the job,” he mused in his parting press conference.
“The person who decided the line-up, the tactics, was me. It was my choice. But It was like we blacked out. It was a catastrophe; the worst moment of my life.”
It took Brazil eight years to recover from their infamous 2-1 loss at home to Uruguay in the deciding game at the 1950 World Cup, on the field at least.
The pain of the ‘Maracanazo’ never truly went away, though. Some players never recovered. Brazil goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa Nascimento was made a scapegoat for the defeat, as the press felt he should have kept out Alcides Ghiggia’s winning goal, and forward Zizinho even later blamed the media for his team-mate’s death.
The fear was that the 7-1 would become just as heavy a burden for the members of the 2014 squad to bear. Certainly, it quickly became apparent that Scolari’s resignation wasn’t going to suddenly cure all Brazil’s ills.
Renowned disciplinarian Dunga was brought back as coach after the World Cup but when Mauro Silva came on board as an assistant, he discovered a group still trying to come to terms with the pain of Belo Horizonte.
“It was a very difficult time,” he said . “The 7-1 was the biggest blow that Brazilian football had ever suffered in all its history.
Unfortunately, it did not go well for Dunga and it ended up costing him his job, as it did [technical coordinator] Gilmar. I was happy to try to help, but unfortunately the project did not work out.
“At the 2015 Copa America, the team felt a lot of pressure. The 7-1 weighed heavily on them and they felt a great responsibility, it was still a kind of trauma. You could see the team were quite affected, emotionally.”
None more so than Neymar, who sparked a mass brawl at the end of Brazil’s loss to Colombia by petulantly firing the ball at Pablo Armero.
The No.10 had clashed several times during the preceding 90 minutes with old foe Zuniga. At one point, he accused the Colombian of deliberately injuring him in Fortaleza before adding, “Then you call me to apologise, you son of a bitch?!”
It was clear that while the physical wounds of 2014 had healed, the emotional scars had not.
Brazil ultimately bowed out in the quarter-final stage in Chile. At a special centenary edition of the Copa America in the United States the following year, the Selecao were eliminated at the group stage for the first time since 1987.
Dunga’s days were numbered and he was replaced at the helm by Tite in the summer of 2016. The former Corinthians boss had not been involved with the Selecao in any capacity in 2014; he had never even coached at international level before.
But, like every other Brazilian, he had been marked by the loss to Germany. “I was watching at home with my wife and, after the third goal went in, she started to cry,” he told reporters earlier this year. “That started me off!”
“The 7-1 is like a ghost. It’s present. People still talk about it, but the more you talk about it, the less likely it is that the ‘ghost’ disappears.”
There was no avoiding talk of Germany, though, at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, as the two teams met in the final of the one international tournament Brazil had never previously won.
Neymar, who had skipped that summer’s Copa America in pursuit of a gold medal, put his country ahead in the decider but Max Meyer’s equaliser forced penalties.
It was 4-4 when Nils Petersen saw his spot-kick saved by Weverton. Who was to take Brazil’s fifth penalty? Neymar, of course.
He walked forward, picked up the ball, kissed it and placed it carefully on the spot. He took a long, staggered run-up before sending Timo Horn the wrong way – and the crowd into ecstasy.
The tears were streaming down Neymar’s face before his knees had even hit the ground. This wasn’t joy; it was relief. And not just for him, for an entire country. It was a restoration of national pride.
Tite knew that he had to capitalise on the wave of positivity that the Olympics had produced.
He had spoken to Neymar during the Games but it was just the once, and had been more of an informal chat than a serious discussion about the future. At their second meeting, though, Tite talked tactics.
“I said I was going to leave him in the position where he played with Barcelona,” he told Goal, “because he trains there more often with his club and he was used to that, his natural position.
“Then, I said we would play a 4-3-3 in numerical terms, but 4-4-2 in terms of roles, and that was also similar to how he had trained, so perhaps it was easier for him.”
Tite’s support was far more important than any tactical tweak, though.
Amid mounting speculation that Neymar was making life difficult for his coach, Unai Emery, at new club Paris Saint-Germain, the No.10 attempted to clear his name at a remarkable press conference after last November’s friendly win over Japan.
Tite then took over, making a passionate defence of his star player.
“People have also always said that I have had problems with Neymar,” he told reporters. “We are sick of hearing that.
“We are not perfect, we are human beings. Sometimes we react in the wrong way. I did that in my career.
“But we have to be careful when we question people’s character and nature. I can only praise Neymar’s character, nature and big heart.”
Neymar was moved to tears by Tite’s words and embraced his coach before leaving the room. This was the most conclusive evidence yet of the Brazil boss’ determination to ease the pressure on the world’s most expensive player.
“Another point I made at our first meeting,” Tite said was that we had to divide the responsibility
among the other players and make sure that Neymar was not solely responsible for the whole team, and that he was not always the one to take the blame when Brazil lose.”
To illustrate what he meant, before their first match together, the World Cup qualifier against Ecuador in Quito in September 2016, he showed them a video of LeBron James in action for the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors in that year’s NBA finals.
He focused on one clip in which Kyrie Irving failed to make a shot and James, rather than berate his team-mate for the miss, simply set about reclaiming possession and giving the ball straight back to Irving, who converted at the second attempt.
“This is the kind of atmosphere we need here in order to be successful,” Tite told his players. “Everyone fighting for one another, even the stars.”
Tite also set about improving the quality of Neymar’s supporting cast. Gabriel Jesus had shone alongside the star forward during the Olympics and Tite boldly picked him to start against Ecuador. Jesus struck twice in a 3-0 win. Even Tite was taken aback.
“During my time at Corinthians, having to face Gabriel with Palmeiras, I knew how difficult an opponent he was,”
All these things led to the forming of the team.
“But I never imagined it would be so successful, or that Gabriel would play so naturally. His performance in the first game was a surprise.”
So was the speed of Brazil’s transformation. Tite’s team had resumed their qualifying campaign sixth in the South American standings.
However, they won nine consecutive games under their new boss – a remarkable run which featured a 3-0 rout of Argentina and a devastating 4-1 victory in Uruguay – and ultimately finished 10 points clear at the top of the CONMEBOL table.
Brazil had their belief back.
“Tite and Edu Gaspar, the ex-Arsenal player who works with Tite, deserve all of the credit for this,” Juliano Belle said
It’s all about confidence. We have it now. Two years ago, no.
“But now, with Tite as the manager, Neymar has recovered, Philippe Coutinho is in good form, Willian too, and we have players with experience of playing in the World Cup also.”
Of course, for many of those players, that experience was a traumatising one. In that sense, defeating Germany in Berlin in March was an important step. It may only have been a friendly but it was hugely significant for the Selecao.
“This has a huge psychological meaning – no one needs to fool themselves about that,” Tite had said beforehand.
“It won’t just be a sporting challenge, but a huge emotional challenge too.”
They overcame both, defeating the reigning world champions thanks to a first-half goal from Jesus. Tite has claimed that he would have liked even more time to prepare for the tournament, or perhaps, more accurately, more time to ensure Neymar was fully match fit to lead his team in Russia, after seeing his club campaign ended by a metatarsal injury in March.
However, the PSG forward looked in fine fettle as he went about opening the scoring in his first game back, a friendly against Croatia at Anfield, on June 3, before racking up his 55th goal for his country in Sunday’s win in Austria.
In addition, Tite has already successfully lessened Brazil’s dependence upon their key man. Indeed, what he is most proud of is the fact that every player is now putting the squad first.
Thiago Silva is the perfect case in point. Nobody is more desperate to help Brazil redeem their reputation in Russia and he has not let the fact that he is not a guaranteed starter upset him. The veteran defender wants only to see Brazil win.
“If you look at our second goal in the win against Uruguay,” Tite pointed out
when Roberto Firmino turns with the ball and there are players warming up behind the goal.
“Who is the first guy to realise the goal is coming? Thiago! He’s right there on the by-line, he knows it’s going to happen, and he’s the first to start celebrating.
“You see, we all have duties, it’s a two-way relationship. And there is Thiago, celebrating, understanding what it takes to make the team stronger.”
And even more united.
When Neymar addressed his team-mates after the 7-1 loss to Germany, he told them, “We started this thing all together, so we’ll end it all together as well.”
Russia awaits. Redemption beckons. A nation holds its breath.