Since October 2007, when FIFA awarded the 2014 World Cup to this soccer-insane land, the Brazilian national team has been tagged the favorite. Never mind that the Selecao fell well short of winning the 2010 tournament in South Africa or endured rough patches in the long build-up to this year’s soccer samba.
Brazil has hoisted more World Cup trophies than anyone, and with the sport’s ultimate competition on home grass for the first time in more than two generations, the story line has been unwavering: On July 13, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and his band of one-name wonders would dance into the Rio night.
Even when they sputtered through the group stage and narrowly escaped knockout challenges, the Brazilians clung to favored status.
That is, until Colombia’s Juan Zuniga drove his right knee into Neymar’s lower back, cracking a vertebra and knocking the superstar out of the tournament. Until captain Thiago Silva was ruled out of the semifinal on a yellow card suspension. And until they realized their next opponent would be the systematic Germans, three-time champions who could not care less who or where they are playing.
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So when the Brazilians enter Estadio Mineirao Tuesday afternoon with a trip to Maracana at stake, they will do so as challengers.
Along those lines, Scolari said: “We respect (the Germans) but we are going to try to make them respect us.”
Brazil was a team on edge even before the personnel losses, bending under the seismic pressure of hosting the World Cup in a country where soccer is part of the national identity. Players had shed tears during both the national anthem and a penalty kick tiebreaker. A psychologist was summoned.
Now, at their most vulnerable moment, the Brazilians will draw inspiration from their fallen star and suspended leader. They have not played without Neymar since May 31, 2012, a span of 38 matches.
“I will have my heart on the field with the players, just as Neymar will have his heart on the field,” Thiago Silva said. “Things are happening to make the group more united. I won’t be there, Neymar won’t be there, so it will be different, but I believe in the strength of the group.”
German coach Joachim Loew is not buying the narrative of a Brazilian underdog at home.
“You shouldn’t believe the absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva would be a disadvantage for Brazil,” he said. “Other players will feel liberated. You see when a very strong player is missing and the other players will have to accept more responsibility. I am certain all of the others will be fighting for Neymar, fighting for the nation.
“Brazil will unleash all of its passion, all of its strong emotions and put them into the match. Any attack that will come close to our goal will be accompanied by the enormous potential of the Brazilian fans.”
While Brazil will attempt to harness the crowd’s sway, Germany will aim to remove the emotional influence and continue performing at its efficient and tactical best. The Germans, too, have sputtered at times, but in tense situations in big tournaments, no one is better.
With Brazil’s issues, Germany has surfaced as both the favorite in this semifinal and to win the championship, regardless of whether the Netherlands or Argentina survives Wednesday’s semifinal in Sao Paulo.
“It is motivation for us,” defender Jerome Boateng said of the feverish atmosphere in Belo Horizonte. “The whole stadium will be against us.”
Loew began his media briefing Monday by expressing sympathy for Neymar. “We would have loved seeing him on the pitch,” he said.
It was the sporting thing to say, but from a strategic standpoint, the absence of the FC Barcelona forward turns the game in Germany’s favor.
With four goals, Neymar lived up to his billing. Meanwhile, attackers Fred and Hulk have not produced high-quality performances, forcing Brazil to lean heavily on Neymar. Willian, who has yet to start in the tournament, might end up replacing the fallen star.
Dante, a Bayern Munich teammate of seven German players, is expected to start for Thiago Silva.
“Neymar left a lot of himself with us, and he has taken a lot of us with him,” Scolari said. “The way he talked to the players (in recent days) made the players understand that he had done his share and now it’s us who have to do our share.
“This is the match we will play not only for ourselves but for our country and for everything we dreamed about. It’s also for Neymar, for everything he has done for us.”