June 28, 2014; Belo Horizonte, BRAZIL; Brazil player Neymar (10) celebrates after defeating Chile in the round of sixteen match in the 2014 World Cup at Estadio Mineirao. Mandatory Credit: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports

World Cup 2014: Rooting for Brazil

I was rooting for Colombia in the World Cup. I knew how devastating Neymar’s injury was for Brazilians, and you never want to see a player get hurt. But I had ties to Colombia and none to Brazil, so my emotions were devoted to the losing side, not the winners who lost their star.

It was that simple.

There was still no avoiding how much Neymar’s fractured vertabrae had changed everything for the country.

For example: I missed the first-half goal Argentina scored in the first game played the following day. I expected to see the replay during halftime. Instead, the Sao Paulo restaurant where I ate lunch spent the entire intermission showing live footage of Neymar on a stretcher being transported in a helicopter. He feigned a thumbs up for the cameras, but seconds later that same hand was wiping away tears.

Here, his injury was now the only story that mattered.

It wasn’t what mattered to me, however. My sadness about Brazil beating my Cafeteros exceeded my empathy.

It didn’t help that the Brazilian guy I was talking with later that evening wanted Brazil to lose. He hates this incarnation of the national team. They dive and whine too much. They don’t have the creative attacking talent to overwhelm. Worst of all, they fail to make The Beautiful Game beautiful.

Everyone hates Fred.

He hates Fred. (Everyone hates Fred.) He hates Hulk. (Everyone hates Hulk, except some ladies who like him well enough). He reserves something between contempt and aggravation for most of the others.

Only two players, he thinks, deserve universal praise: David Luiz, who was renowned even before his superhuman free-kick laser that was the difference vs. Colombia, and Neymar.

And this Brazilian — a radiologist who somehow already had a copy of the broken vertebrae x-ray on his phone — liked Neymar more than most. He told me about the best goal he has ever seen, a pretty play from a 19-year-old Neymar back when he was playing domestically for Santos.

Telling me wasn’t enough.

He grabbed his girlfriend’s iPhone and pulled up the video on YouTube, abandoning the first clip he found midstream in favor of another version that better showed the nifty dribble-around-the-final-defender move Neymar made before scoring. It was crafty, and the where-did-he-go? cleverness made me think of a Pele move to dumbfound a Uruaguayan keeper that I had seen several times that morning at the city’s iconic football museum.

But even if Neymar was able to play, this guy thought Germany would win. That was how he wanted it. The Germans had the best team, and his country was fielding a facade of Brazilian greatness. He didn’t want them to succeed.

June 28, 2014; Belo Horizonte, BRAZIL; Brazil player David Luiz celebrates after converting on a penalty kick against Chile during the round of sixteen match in the 2014 World Cup at Estadio Mineirao. Mandatory Credit: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports

June 28, 2014; Belo Horizonte, BRAZIL; Brazil player David Luiz celebrates after converting on a penalty kick against Chile during the round of sixteen match in the 2014 World Cup at Estadio Mineirao. Mandatory Credit: Tim Groothuis/Witters Sport via USA TODAY Sports

No doubt this was an extreme view, but some of the sentiment was shared by others. Plenty of Brazilians only begrudgingly clap for Fred and Hulk, among others who wear the iconic yellow jerseys. Those guys don’t deserve to be immortalized. Many agree on that point.

But I hadn’t met anyone else who cared enough about all that to hope Brazil lost.

After all, winning the cup on home soil would still be another star on the jersey, another trophy to further distance the nation from the rest of the world, another reason for bitter Argentines to make up another silly song. Best of all, it would be another reason for Brazilians to wrap themselves in green flags and dance samba in the street.

We finished chatting. The pessimist finished his drink soon after and left with his girlfriend.

An hour later, I saw someone else.

In the bar, charging his smartphone in a nearby socket was a 9-year-old kid. His dark hair was trimmed short on the sides and in the back. The top was longer, floppy with dyed blond tips.

I don’t know why he had a cell phone. I suppose I’m just old and kids just have phones now.

Conceding that point, I still don’t know what he was doing in that bar.

We were in the heart of Sao Paulo’s Vila Madalena section. The final game of the day, Netherlands vs. Costa Rica, had ended a few hours earlier, but thousands still crowded the streets outside. There weren’t many kids. It may have been a merry, friendly atmosphere, but it was still a dark Saturday night following a drink-filled afternoon. For caution’s sake, the purveyor of the bar refused to put a UFC fight on the television out of fear that someone watching might mimic what was on the screen.

Inside, it was packed. A band played, couples danced, others drank tequila. People were making out on the dance floor. And this is Brazil; they were making out.

Why was this kid here?

I’ll never know. I wasn’t close enough to talk with him, and — even if I had been — I don’t understand Portuguese.

But he has the Neymar haircut, and he is among the minority of Brazilians who have never seen Brazil win a World Cup. He has no internal conflict about what The Beautiful Game had to be. He just wanted to look like the national hero who we all watched get airlifted home in a helicopter.

That changed my outlook. That made me get over Colombia’s loss. That made me want Brazil to win.

For Neymar, sure, but really for all the kids with the Neymar haircut.

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  • Bill Coffin

    I felt compelled to root for Brazil during this World Cup between now and the previous World Cup, I began studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and have Brazilian friends (and teachers). So I felt obligated. My heart wasn’t really in it as much for other countries (how about those Ticos?) but I did enjoy watching Brazil play. What I did not enjoy was watching Neymar get injured. Like you said, I really enjoyed watching Neymar and Luiz work, and seeing Neymar get hit with a flying knee that had no purpose other than to rough up another player was just taking things too far. That game had devolved into a brawl. James Rodriquez took more than his fair share of hits as well, and the Beautiful Game is not about brutalizing other players. Outplaying? Yes. Outrunning? Yes. Outshooting? Yes. But the game is ultimately about skill moreso than power, and now, thanks to a craven official who couldn’t see fit to throw a single yellow card until 40 fouls into a major match, we have a talented young soccer star nursing a broken back. Unbelievable.

    I’ll be rooting hard for Brazil on Tuesday. The Germans are *supposed* to win, but they haven’t been playing like a team that deserves to win. Their recent victory over France was so languid I lost track of what half it was. Brazil, for all of its faults, now has a cause around which to rally. And to the kids wearing the haircut, too. An entire nation was wounded when Neymar’s back broke. Now, Brazil has a chance to show what kind of spine it really has.