It was, if you believed the pre-match hype, pretty much a straight shootout between two of the stars of this World Cup. For many, Brazil versus Colombia boiled down to Neymar against James Rodríguez: two skilful, subtle number tens who had already left an indelible mark on this competition even before their quarter-final confrontation. It promised glitz, glamour, and, for the victor, a semi-final date with Germany.
But fate has a way of shaking off such simple narratives.
One of the presumed protagonists left the field in a flood of tears, saddened by his side's elimination. Rodriguez turned in another fine display in Fortaleza, reigniting the game with a late penalty after Brazil had taken a 2-0 lead, but it was not enough to rescue Colombia.
Brazil, for once this tournament, were buoyant, able to build up a head of steam following Thiago Silva's redemptive opening goal. When David Luiz added a sensational second after the interval, it looked like being the night on which their World Cup hopes truly came back to life.
That was before the real news of the evening filtered through.
Neymar had left the field on a stretcher following a clumsy challenge by Juan Zuñiga in the second half before being taken to hospital. The forward had appeared to be in some pain on the way down the tunnel, clutching his lower back and grimacing.
After the final whistle, the coach Luiz Felipe Scolari admitted that he would be a doubt for the semi-final against Germany. But even that uncertainty – that sweet, hopeful uncertainty – was soon snatched away from Brazil. Neymar, the team doctor revealed an hour or so later, had fractured a vertebrae. He will miss the rest of the World Cup.
The positivity that had echoed round the Castelão after the game dissipated in an instant. "Out of the Copa" read Globo’s onlne page lead, with the result already on the back burner. It felt as though Brazil had been eliminated from the World Cup, such was the shock and horror.
The players were understandably taken aback. "It's an enormous sadness," said Júlio César. "We all know how determined he was to shine in this World Cup, how happy he feels bringing joy to the Brazilian people. He's a spectacular kid. I can't believe he won't be playing on Tuesday."
— Raju Narisetti (@raju) July 5, 2014
Truly, the news is a major blow to a team that has come to depend on the forward. Let us be clear about this: Neymar's injury could spell the end for Brazil's World Cup dream. That is how serious this blow is to the host nation. Their hopes lie in ruin, and it will take real character for their unit to reassemble their thoughts after such a distressing loss. Neymar, not the game.
Since coming into the Brazil set-up after the 2010 World Cup, Neymar had always been on course to be the star of this year's edition – a legacy mapped out partly on the basis of his PR star power, admittedly, but also his staggering natural talent.
With his darting, electrifying runs and instinctive finishing, he almost single-handedly provided consolation to Brazil fans in the early stages of this World Cup: even though their side was not performing as hoped, at least they had him. And with him came hope.
Now, or perhaps tomorrow morning after the dust has settled, they must steady themselves and prepare for life without Neymar. It will not be an easy task, either on the field or in the hearts and minds of 200 million souls.
Brazil must hope his injury has a galvanising effect. There is nothing wrong with hope. The show must go on. That, surely, is what its biggest attraction – so cruelly consigned to a watching brief from here on in – would want.
Jack Lang is in Brazil and covering the World Cup finals for us - you can find him on Twitter @snap_kaka_pop
- Sports & Recreation