At barber shops, public offices, hospitals, schools, bakeries and parks around Brazil, it seemed like everyone was shaking their heads and quietly muttering the same name – Neymar.
Any satisfaction about Brazil’s 2-1 victory over Colombia in Friday’s World Cup quarter-final had long since vanished, replaced by pessimism over whether the team can finally win their first championship on home territory without their star forward.
Neymar, out of the tournament after suffering a fractured vertebra in the dying minutes of the game, was by far the team’s most dynamic creative influence – so good, in fact, that some fans accused Brazil’s other players of standing around, waiting for him to do something spectacular.
But Neymar meant much more than that.
With his flamboyant quaffed hair and humble roots, Neymar had unparalleled appeal for the rising lower-middle class that has come to dominate Brazil’s culture and politics in recent years.
His easy smile, dominant in magazines and billboards, was a tailor-made antidote to the crushing pressure that came with Brazil hosting the Cup for the first time since 1950.
“The Brazilian team lost its soul,” lamented Marcelo Rodrigues, shaking his head as he swept the floor at the Light Look barber shop in Sao Paulo on Saturday morning.
“You can’t replace a guy like that,” chimed in Joao Brandeis Silva, a client. “A shame – we were finally looking good.”
Headlines in Saturday’s newspapers struck a similar tone, focusing on Neymar’s injury rather than the victory itself.
“A beating for Brazil,” O Globo’s sports section said.
“Is it possible without him?” Folha de S.Paulo asked.
To make matters worse, Brazil must also play Germany on Tuesday in the semi-final without captain Thiago Silva, who is suspended after receiving a second yellow card against Colombia.
“The Brazilian team is an underdog now,” wrote Juca Kfouri, one of the country’s best-known soccer columnists. “Fans who go to (Tuesday’s) game will have the spirit of ‘I believe,’ but they’ll really be hoping for a miracle.”
Indeed, some said lower expectations could be a good thing – and that other players would just have to step up.
“Brazil has to show that it can survive without a star … If they can’t win without Neymar, they don’t deserve the Cup.” said Felipe Costa, 39, a construction worker in Rio de Janeiro.
But others were still mourning.
Pele said Saturday his heart ached for Neymar after Brazil’s star player was ruled out of the rest of the World Cup but noted that the team lifted the 1962 trophy despite his own injury.
“I was also injured during the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and I was out for the rest of the tournament,” he wrote in English and Portuguese.
“But God helped Brazil continue on to win the Championship. I hope the same will happen with our Selecao in this World Cup.”
One video making the rounds on YouTube on Saturday showed a Brazilian toddler in a canary yellow team T-shirt sobbing inconsolably, asking: “Where’s Neymar?”
“He’s in the hospital, honey,” the child’s mother replied. “Don’t worry, there’ll be a World Cup in 2018, too. You’ll be big then.”
The toddler then cried some more.