Nick Harper swats up on the dark arts ahead of Tuesday's first World Cup semi-final in Belo Horizonte...
Good morning, dear reader, and welcome to the first of two exceptional looking World Cup semi-finals; Brazil the hosts against Germany the Germans, live from Belo Horizonte and beamed to your living room at 9pm BST. The countdown starts here, and let's kick things off with some breaking team news.
And it seems that in the absence of Neymar, Brazil's hopes now rest on the shoulders of Helio Sillman. It’s not a like-for-like replacement, granted, for while Neymar is a classic goalscoring number 10, the boy Sillman is a voodoo priest who sits in his shop making up spells. Desperate times, desperate measures.
Yesterday Señor Sillman announced his cunning plan to deal with Germany in tonight's encounter, and it's a plan of quite fiendish simplicity. "I'll take their top player and bind his legs so he can't run on the pitch," he said, or more likely cackled, possibly while sat beside a big cauldron.
Dr Voodoo has form for this kind of nonsense. Operating out of his shop, World of Orixas in Rio de Janeiro’s northern neighbourhood of Madureira, he has cast a spell on every opponent Brazil has so far faced. In the quarter-finals he dropped a hex on James Rodriguez, and even though the Colombian scored, Brazil still prevailed, so clearly it worked.
To make the magic, Sillman takes a small box shaped like a football pitch, adds a few candles and a voodoo doll dressed in the colours of Brazil's opponents. "Those are the four teams that Brazil have overcome," he said yesterday, pointing to a basket containing shabby dolls wearing the colours of Brazil’s previous victims. After spouting some inaudible mumbo-jumbo, and with a quick swish of his wand, the spell is apparently cast and the sinister, Gus Parker-esque plot set in motion.
We can only guess which German he's targeted, because "their top player" is all Sillman divulged. That obviously rules out Mesut Ozil but after that it's anyone's guess, although in truth it shouldn't be too taxing to spot a man whose legs have been tied together.
Of course it should never have come to this. Brazil shouldn't be relying on the dark arts of a crazy shaman to keep them in these finals, but the hosts are in need of all the help they can get. All the more so given that (genuine team news right here!) Thiago Silva's appeal against his one-match suspension was laughed out of FIFA HQ yesterday, and that's as big a blow as the Neymar nobbling.
There was a whisper that Neymar may yet make a miraculous, Lazarus-like recovery. Rumour had it that with some alternative treatments, painkilling injections and a stout corset, Brazil's boy wonder may somehow be fit enough to play in Sunday's World Cup final! Assuming Brazil somehow got there.
Earlier in the day, Brazil's opportunist president had spoken of Neymar being a "great warrior" and a man "who will never let himself be held back even when wounded". He's far too spindly to be a warrior, and the suggestion that a man who feared he'd lost the use of his legs could play again within a week, and in the biggest game in all football, well it seemed way too far-fetched to believe!
And that's because it was.
"Let’s not create an illusion to the Brazilian people," announced the official Brazil team doctor José Luiz Runco, quick to nip this one in the bud. "There isn’t the smallest possibility for Neymar to play on July 13 if Brazil reaches the final."
And that was that. All hope was extinguished.
Brazil's sense of dread is not just because Neymar's boots will be filled by Bernard (or more likely Willian if he shakes off a training ground injury he picked up on Sunday). It's more because they face a German team who have slowly become as powerfully efficient and stereotypically German as we all expected them to be.
According to one latest ranking of the four teams left, the Germans have jumped from fourth on the FIFA Power list to take top spot, with Brazil down from first to third, Argentina now second (despite everything), and the Dutch in fourth. That's all very unscientific, but you can't avoid the feeling that they are finding some form at just the right moment.
The German squad spent Day 26 doing efficient exercises and sewing seeds in the referee's mind ahead of tonight's filthy battle. "I am all for healthy hardness," announced Bastian Schweinsteiger, with a phrase that may have lost something to translation. "But some of Brazil's fouls [against Colombia] were over the limit. We have to be careful, and so does the referee."
The referee? Ah yes, your whistle blower for tonight's game will be Marco Rodrîguez, the Mexican official known as 'Chiquidrácula' because of his uncanny resemblance to Count Dracula. The great irony of that nickname is that he was also the referee who managed to miss The Suarez Bite during the Italy-Uruguay game, and that hopeless myopia should give Brazil some hope.
If tying the Germans' legs together doesn't work, then sucking their blood surely will.
All in all, it should make for fascinating viewing. Enjoy the game.
A small footnote: Ahead of the other semi-final, taking place tomorrow, both Argentina and Holland spent Day 26 trotting gently around a football pitch and doing light lunges. Come back tomorrow for more details.