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Neymar remains inspiration for Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO -- On Saturday morning, this city began to wake up from its long night of good and bad dreams. The first few football games kicked off on the beach; joggers began their runs along the water; street sweepers and garbage men continued their endless, thankless task of tidying up. By nine o'clock the streets were already warm and opening, and the sky was blue. It will be a beautiful day.

The dark hours had felt less certain. Rio had suffered earthquakes. First, there was the game against the Colombians, more nerve-wracking than anyone might have hoped. It's hard to overstate what football means to this country, especially football on its biggest stage. In the twilight after the start of Friday's game, Rio's streets were empty. The stores had been shuttered. Only an occasional car raced down the wide-open roads. It felt like everyone had gone into hiding from whatever wicked thing was going to come out after dark.

But then Brazil scored, twice, and in the bars and on the beaches, in the perfect little streetscapes of Brazilians gathered around sidewalk TVs, in the towering apartment blocks draped with Brazilian flags, there were eruptions of life. When Brazil scored -- even when they came close to scoring -- fireworks that sounded like cannons went off, horns blared, men and women screamed out of their windows at each other. When the final whistle blew, and the Brazilians had hung on to win 2-1, it sounded like the end of the world, if people were happy about it.

Then the party really started, one of those nights that felt as though it would never end. The beachside lanes of the long Avenue Atlantica had been closed to cars, and they were filled with people instead. They were packed, in fact, with drunks and revelers, tourists and locals, a few brave Germans and thousands of Brazilians, real and make-believe. Almost all of them wore yellow, and almost all of those who wore yellow had the same fabled number on their backs in green: 10.

Neymar. He had been carried off the pitch at the end of the game, and in the middle of the celebrations that was a half-worry. He was often tackled hard, and he often looked in agony. This time, Juan Camilo Zuniga had put his knee in Neymar's back -- had kneed all of Brazil square in the center of that No. 10. The contact looked bad, but not that bad. It was only Neymar's reaction that left lingering concern. He was carried off in an orange stretcher, covering his eyes and screaming, not for the first time. But it was the first time he had continued screaming all the way up the tunnel.

And then the first dire news came, on Twitter feeds and smartphones, on restaurant patios and in beachside cantinas: Neymar's back was broken, and not from the load he's been carrying. He had cracked a vertebra and would be out for the rest of the tournament. Neymar was gone.

There was confusion. There must be some mistake. The unhappy word had come out almost too quickly to be true, so soon after the game. How could anyone know what was wrong with Neymar, let alone any of us, more than 1,000 miles away? But then the team's doctor, Rodrigo Lasmar, was quoted, and there were pictures of the worried crowd that had gathered outside the hospital in Fortaleza, and then the news really began to travel. You could almost see it in the air, a shadow coming around the corner, pouring through the city's gaps and cracks, like black water finding its level.

"This is s---," said one man on the street in a Neymar jersey, and even in his sad, drunk state -- or maybe especially in it -- he spoke for all of Brazil.

Neymar isn't everything to this country, but he is everywhere in it. He is far more than an athlete. He is a matinee idol; he is a billboard; he is a child star who was on the cusp of some brilliant adult revelation. Still only 22, he had been smiling through this tournament and all of its attendant pressures, leading his team in goals, shots, chances created and touches in the attacking half. He had looked almost destined to carry Brazil to glory at home, lifting the World Cup at the Maracana, just the way the script would have been written. Look how dramatically they survived the Chileans, and now the Colombians. They conquered much of the continent and would soon claim the world. The impossible was going to come true.

By Saturday morning, a different truth was settling in. "Play For Him," read one newspaper's headline, a photograph of a stricken Neymar filling the page. Neymar isn't about to disappear from our sight. His presence could never be erased here. That would be like Rio without the mountains. He will continue to star in the same movie, but he will be cast in a different role. Now Brazil is in trouble. Nothing feels predestined anymore. The Germans are coming, and Thiago Silva will be out on suspension, and Neymar will be watching either from the bench or his hospital bed. He will remain an inspiration, just not in the way anyone here ever wanted to imagine.

Right now in sunny Rio the beaches continue to fill. The store shutters are rising with an awakening clatter. The lines to Christ the Redeemer have started snaking up the cliffs, and the first beers have been poured. The celebration here is far from over. The ocean could wash through this inexhaustible city and you'd still find someone setting off fireworks in the top of a palm tree. But now the party's biggest guest has been forced to withdraw, and even Rio doesn't have a heart big enough to pretend that things will be the same without him.