RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) — Normally, it would be horrible news to football fans anywhere that their team’s star player was injured.
But even as they endured an anguished wait for a Neymar-less Brazil to score in their 1-0 win over Switzerland Monday, some Brazilians found it hard to miss the injured superstar, who has promised to dedicate his first World Cup goal to far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
Watching the match in a packed bar in central Rio de Janeiro, where fans decked out in yellow and green waited nervously for what turned out to be the lone goal — scored in the 83rd minute, by Casemiro — 23-year-old law student Henrique Melo explained his dilemma.
As a football fan, he desperately wanted Neymar back from the ankle injury that sidelined him late in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Serbia Thursday, in which the Paris Saint-Germain star sparkled despite failing to find the goal.
“The team are missing him,” Melo said, proudly sporting the football-mad nation’s jersey.
At the same time, the fact that the world’s most expensive footballer has yet to score in the tournament “is the best result Brazil’s had in the World Cup,” he joked.
“We would have had all these Bolsonaro supporters celebrating,” Melo, a proud supporter of leftist president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, told AFP.
“As a player, Neymar’s incredible — he’s an artist. As a person, he leaves a lot to be desired. Not just his political opinions, but who he is. Instead of just enjoying his bling lifestyle, he could be investing in education, social projects, setting an example for kids… He could be the man.”
On Rio’s iconic Copacabana beach, where a huge crowd watched the match on a giant screen, 29-year-old vendor Tainara Santana was feeling the same quandary.
“I like football, so I want (Neymar) to play because he’s good. But I can’t say I’m sad he hasn’t scored. It’s great to see Neymar fail,” she laughed.
With his lean good looks and huge social media following, Neymar is one of the biggest names in sports.
But his footballing magic has been tarnished at times.
On the pitch, critics accuse the 30-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star of diving and of failing to live up to the hype when it counts. Off the pitch, he has faced accusations of excessive partying, tax fraud and spoiled behavior.
“He’s a jerk,” Santana said.
“Not just for his politics, but because of his machismo, his ego, his total lack of humility.”
‘How low have we sunk?’
Brazil’s campaign for a record-extending sixth World Cup comes on the heels of its divisive elections last month.
Neymar endorsed Bolsonaro against Lula — and became the target of an army of “Neymar haters” online.
At the weekend, “F*** Neymar” became one of the top trending topics in Brazil on Twitter.
Brazilian football legend Ronaldo rushed to Neymar’s defense Sunday.
“You’re f***ing Neymar! Giant!” the two-time World Cup winner wrote on Instagram Sunday.
“That’s why you have to deal with so much envy and evil, to the point of people celebrating your injury. How low have we sunk?” he said, urging Neymar to “use that hate as fuel.”
Teammates Casemiro and Raphinha also stuck up for Neymar, saying he didn’t deserve the shade he was getting on social media.
Brazil have struggled in the past without Neymar — notably enduring the shame of their 7-1 elimination by Germany on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals after their talisman suffered a back injury.
In Copacabana, Lula supporter Charleo Luis just wanted to keep politics and football separate.
Neymar haters “are idiots who know nothing about football,” said the 24-year-old street vendor.
“Who cares if he supports Bolsonaro? He’s a great player. I’m a huge fan, I love him. I’m rooting for him to recover.”
The World Cup, he added, “is a time for us to cheer like one big family.”
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