Tears and Jeers for Neymar

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The photos of Neymar Jr in tears as his World Cup dream on home soil came to an end as excruciating as the pain in his lower spine was among the many heart-breaking tales for Brazil four years ago.

Apart from enduring jokes about the 7-1 defeat to Germany every July 1st since 2014, one of the Selecao’s other biggest regrets was losing their key playmaker ahead of the semi-finals prompting thoughts of what might have been.

When Colombia’s Juan Zuniga drove his knee into Neymar’s back during the quarter-final clash, it caused a fractured vertebra. In a subsequent interview, the striker recalled how doctors told him he was lucky to have the ability to walk afterwards with one telling him: “Two centimetres to the side, football is over for you.”

The Brazilian superstar’s arrival at the hospital in Fortaleza was greeted by large numbers of fans. And those scenes were repeated this week when Neymar arrived in his home country for surgery on a foot injury that is again threatening his appearance at the World Cup, and his nation’s hopes of a first title since 2002.  During the Ligue 1 clash with Marseilles, he suffered a “sprain of the right ankle and fissure of the fifth metatarsal” and now faces a race against time to lead the Brazilian line in Russia.

Germany are favourites with online betting and gaming sites to retain their World Cup crown, followed by Brazil, France, and Spain. Despite their struggles in qualifying, Lionel Messi’s Argentina are also tipped to mount a serious challenge. For many, Brazil’s chances will directly correlate with Neymar’s recovery, despite his at times petulant performances for Paris Saint Germain this season.

Neymar is headline news in Brazil, as you would expect in a country so enamoured with ‘o jogo bonito – the beautiful game’ but, at first glance, it may be surprising that his current plight doesn’t command universal sympathy.

Many Brazilians are openly aghast at the fact that, with the country in chaos, people are paying too much attention to Neymar’s injury. Social media is ablaze with pictures mocking the player’s foot asking why the world’s most expensive player hadn’t received treatment through Brazil’s public health system?

There is an undercurrent of social unrest to this joviality. The country’s public services are in meltdown, many tracing the economic catastrophe back to Brazil’s financially crippling hosting of the World Cup and Olympic Games. Public sectors workers are not being paid while multiple politicians remain under investigation for corruption, and former president Lula faces a potential jail sentence.

Football has long been an escape from life’s toils, especially for Brazilians, but it is against a backdrop of patients being treated in corridors, that an entire wing reserved for Neymar and his entourage at the Mater Dei de Belo Horizonte hospital does not sit well with many locals.

Following successful surgery, Neymar flew by private jet to his luxury villa at the Mangaratiba beach resort around 100km from Rio de Janeiro. He is not expected to return to training for another six weeks. However, should he recover in time to don the ‘Canarinho’ yellow shirt, he’s likely to regain the full affection of his countrymen and women, for whom the football World Cup is perhaps the greatest vehicle to drive their wounded national pride.

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