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When Colombia’s Juan Camilo Zúñiga crashed his knee into Brazil’s Neymar in theWorld Cup quarter final on Friday, he fractured more than the third vertebrae in the Barcelona star’s lower back.
He shook the hopes of a nation of winning the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium next Sunday and finally atoning for Brazil’s loss to Uruguay the last time it staged the tournament on home soil in 1950, a day that still haunts Brazilians.
“Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé, Neymar, Neymar,” chanted the Brazilians in the crowd at the Arena Fonte Nova stadium in Salvador on Saturday, where the Netherlands defeated Costa Rica, in a show of support for their fallen idol.
By rendering the poster boy of Brazil’s World Cup bid incapable of playing for at least four weeks, the tackle will also help determine the national mood ahead of crucial presidential elections in October.
President Dilma Rousseff has so far been bolstered by a smooth World Cup and may have been hoping for a further boost from a victory by the national side in the tournament. But optimism that the team was improving after a scratchy start will be dashed by the loss of Neymar, which comes as captain Thiago Silva will also be suspended from the semi-final against Germany on Tuesday.
“Dear Neymar,” Ms Rousseff wrote in a letter to the player on Saturday. “It broke my heart and the heart of every Brazilian watching the pain on your face on the Castelão field yesterday. But we also saw the immense strength of a great warrior, who will never let himself be held back even when wounded.”
The world’s biggest football tournament is taking place in Brazil – soccer’s spiritual home. Can the World Cup win over a sceptical Brazilian public?
More than any other player, Neymar has become the propaganda tool for advertisers fighting the battle for consumers in this year’s tournament. The Barcelona forward’s face is on every TV screen and billboard, advertising everything from Nike to Santander bank and Lupo underwear.
“He is the one that made the difference to the Brazilian team, without him Brazil is just a normal team,” said Roger Alves, a Brazilian fan at the Costa Rica versus Netherlands match.
Still, the loss of Neymar may have come too late to damage Ms Rousseff’s chances in the national election, say analysts. In the most recent poll, her government’s approval rating was above the 40 per cent minimum seen as necessary for success for an incumbent president at this stage of an election, according to João Augusto de Castro Neves of Eurasia Group. The latest survey byBrazilian pollster Ibope put her government’s approval rating at 44 per cent.
Mr Castro Neves said he believed making it to the semi-final was enough to assuage Brazilians’ expectations for the World Cup, which had already been tempered by the team’s not-so-stellar performances, even with Neymar.
“Just making it to the semi-finals was enough to prevent embarrassment,” he said. But some fans remain optimistic that the Seleção, as the national squad is known, can still go all the way. “Brazil will still win,” said another Brazilian at the Salvador match. “What happened to Neymar is the normal type of setback you get in football.”
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