Watching Brazil’s gutless capitulation to Germany, I couldn’t help but thinking that Neymar was to blame. Or, to be more precise, the myth of Neymar. The nation itself had been in a state of mourning ever since the player was stretchered off in the game against Colombia. Although he was physically absent from the semi-final, Neymar was also omnipresent. His spectre haunted the Mineirão stadium in Belo Horizonte. Thousands of fans sported Neymar masks and chanted his name. Some clutched Neymar replica shirts as though they were rosary beads. The players wore ‘Forca Neymar’ baseball caps and held up his shirt during the anthems. Neymar wasn’t just a talented footballer, he was idolised and mythologised. By indulging in the cult of Neymar, the players persuaded themselves that, without him, they were nothing; that they were destined to lose. Is it any surprise that this became a self-fulfilling prophesy? It was a funeral waiting to happen. Or to put it in tabloidese, it was Neymargeddon.
The fetishisation of Neymar is perhaps understandable given that this is possibly the most functional Brazil squad we’ve ever seen. Neymar was elevated into an übermensch who was somehow expected to transform an unexceptional group of players into World Cup winners. But to invest so much faith in a 22-year-old is to undervalue and, I would argue, undermine the collective ethos. Clearly Neymar is an outstanding talent, a player capable of moments of game-changing brilliance. But he isn’t Brazil’s only player. His absence doesn’t excuse the most astonishing display of defensive ill-discipline, disorganisation and incompetence I’ve seen at a World Cup semi-final. Before the match, Jose Mourinho quite rightly highlighted the absence of the suspended Thiago Silva as crucial. ‘I would say that Thiago Silva in this moment is so more important than Neymar in the team’, said the Special One. ‘His absence is an important absence because Brazil’s game is based on their defensive structure where Thiago Silva gives great stability to the team.’
Brazilians are still struggling to come to terms with what they witnessed. The game was lost in a crazy six-minute spell in the first half during which Germany scored 4 goals. Felipe Scolari, Brazil’s coach, said that his team had ‘blacked out’ during those fateful few minutes. In other words, they panicked, choked, bottled it. The team had struggled to control their emotions all through the tournament. On Tuesday night they suffered a full-blown psychological meltdown. I don’t know how Scolari prepared his troops, but it’s clear that, whatever he said, the absence of Neymar fuelled their fear and self-doubt.
Compare the outpouring of Brazilian grief at Neymar’s absence with the stoic German reaction to the ankle injury to Marco Reus, the Bundesliga’s player of the season, which ruled him out of the tournament. ‘We have a great deal of quality in that position behind the forwards’, coach Joachim Löew told journalists. ‘We’ve got enough alternatives with Lukas Podolski, André Schürrle, Mario Göetze, Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil, Julian Draxler and Toni Kroos.’ Of course, Germany are far less reliant on Reus than Brazil are on Neymar, but if you look at Scolari’s squad, it’s full of experienced players who ply their trade at elite European clubs. They really ought not to have performed like a pub team. If Brazil had put their faith in the ethos of the team, instead of mawkishly grieving over their injured talisman, they might have fared better. But instead the players paraded his shirt like a religious relic. They bought into the Neymar myth. And when their composure deserted them, there was no Messiah to save them.