Sunday 15 December 2019

A nation adjusts to life without a hero

Willian favourite to replace Neymar for Germany showdown

Injured Brazilian national soccer team player Neymar waits to be airlifted home from Brazil's training camp in Teresopolis, near Rio de Janeiro
Injured Brazilian national soccer team player Neymar waits to be airlifted home from Brazil's training camp in Teresopolis, near Rio de Janeiro

Sam Wallace

In her letter to the stricken Neymar over the weekend, Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff described her dismay at the sight of the nation's "great warrior, who will never let himself be held back even when wounded".

Frankly, the mood in the country demanded nothing less, with the gloom over the Selecao's fallen soldier bordering on the febrile over the weekend. The language Dilma chose appeared deliberately militaristic – strange for a country that has fought so few wars or, for that matter, has so few enemies.

In fact, if there is anyone who knows a thing or two about life outside the football bubble, it is Dilma, who was imprisoned and tortured under the country's military dictatorship in the 1970s. But as a politician, and one facing elections later this year, there was no danger that she was about to miss this chance to add her voice to the general mourning.

At Brazil's training camp in Teresopolis yesterday, an hour's drive north of Rio de Janeiro among the mountain range known as 'God's Fingers', the Brazilian media found a hundred different ways to ask Willian and Bernard, the two candidates to replace Neymar, how they were coping with absence of their No 10.

Neymar is now convalescing at home in Sao Paulo as Luis Felipe Scolari decides how best to replace the boy prince of Brazilian football.

The final question to Willian said it all about the concern with which the nation regards tomorrow's World Cup semi-final against Germany in Belo Horizonte.

Had the player been to see Regina Brandao, the team's psychiatrist, and a close aide of Scolari, to discuss how he would cope with the absence of Neymar?

"Not yet," he said.

"We spoke to her before the Colombia game and it was fine ... let's see what she has to share with us later."

The fractured vertebrae of their star player, sustained against Colombia on Friday night was, Scolari said earlier in the weekend, "equivalent to a catastrophe".

It is worth bearing in mind as you drive up the windy mountain roads here in Teresopolis that more than 900 people died in the area little more than three years ago amid mud slides and flooding caused by heavy rain. But this is a country gripped with an obsession about the World Cup finals and winning it on home soil.

Scolari described how he and his players feared that Neymar had been paralysed by the knee in his back from Colombia's Juan Zuniga.

"At the time, Marcelo ran over to Neymar and asked him how he was feeling," the Brazil coach said.

"Neymar told him, 'I can't feel my legs'. It was a big shock, the image of Neymar being carried off on a stretcher towards the plane, the difficulties, the fears.

"It's the equivalent to a catastrophe. Neymar is a key figure for us because he is the kind of player who would make a difference in any team.

"We have lost the one player we did not want to lose, and it's for the semi-final and the final.

"He will be with us if he can (at the games), either on the bench or in the stands. We have already asked him to do this. It will depend on how he is."

That was even before he got onto the suspension of his captain Thiago Silva, who picked up a needless second booking at a goal-kick and is out of the semi-final.

Brazil's attempt to appeal his suspension is no more than a symbolic gesture in a nation that is starting to feel rather desperate.

Yet today in Belo Horizonte, it will be Thiago who gives the mandatory FIFA pre-match press conference – a minor act of defiance.

David Luiz will be the captain against Germany, with Dante, the Bayern Munich man stepping into Thiago's place to face many of his German club-mates. The remaining decision for Scolari will be between Bernard and Willian.

Sitting alongside each other in the big marquee alongside their training pitch in Teresopolis, they were asked by a Brazilian journalist to argue each other's cases to start the semi-final against Germany.

Otherwise, they were bombarded with questions about the team's "Neymar dependencia".

"It is a complicated situation and we are all sad," said Bernard – Bernard Anicio Caldeira Duarte, a Belo Horizonte boy by birth who played for Atletico Mineiro before his transfer to Shakhtar Donetsk last summer.

"Of course, we have lost a great player, but we will try to do our best regardless of who represents Neymar ... he said he would send us his positive energy. It's hard for him as a player and a human being."

There was considerable interest in whether Willian's experience of playing alongside Oscar for the national team might make him a better bet than the pocket-sized Bernard, who stands just a bit over 5ft 4in.

"No one, especially not the Brazilian people, thought we would find ourselves in a situation like this without Neymar," Willian said.

Asked what he had learned in the past year under Jose Mourinho, Willian said he had absorbed "a lot – especially on defending".


"He always demands a lot from us. I have had a good experience at Chelsea. I have played a lot of games and run a lot for him. I hope I will learn a lot more over my next four years at the club."

Willian has had his own cross to bear with that missed penalty against Chile – it was not even on target – that could potentially have proved disastrous were it not for Julio Cesar rescuing the shoot-out for Brazil.

"It's always a learning experience," he said.

"If there is another penalty shoot-out I would put my hand up to take one."

It is Willian who is the natural favourite to take the place of Neymar and his tireless running and tactical discipline, refined under Mourinho this season, will play well into the kind of game-plan one imagines Scolari is formulating for the Germans.

Willian was asked whether he was "the new Amarildo", the striker who successfully replaced the injured Pele en route to Brazil winning the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile.

"I have heard the stories," he said, with a smile. "It had never crossed my mind, but I hope to be ready."

It was an admirable attempt to stay calm in a nation also trying its hardest to hold its nerve. (© Independent News Service)

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