Neymar puts his back into it
Righting the wrongs of 2014 is top of the Brazil star’s agenda
Just minutes before kicking off their World Cup semi-final against Germany, the minds of Brazil’s players were fixed solely on a team-mate who wasn’t even playing. Solemnly, the starting XI marched onto the pitch of Belo Horizonte’s Mineirao stadium holding the famous yellow jersey, upon which the name ‘Neymar Jr’ was printed above the iconic No.10. Each player wore the expression of a man coming to terms with a great loss – ironic, given what followed. Neymar himself was 400 miles away. The star forward, then just 22 years old, was at his beach house in Guaruja, Sao Paulo state, recovering from a brutal back injury he’d sustained four days earlier. The intention of the message from Neymar’s team-mates was clear: it was a heartfelt display of solidarity for their talisman and friend, ruled out of the tournament after fracturing a vertebra in a bruising collision with Colombia’s Juan Zuniga. Instead, the empty shirt held aloft by his compatriots loomed large over the semi-final; it acted as a symbolic reminder of Neymar’s importance to that Selecao team. Could they win without him?
Ninety humiliating minutes later, the answer had been delivered by the final-bound Germans in devastatingly emphatic fashion.
Psychologically and tactically, Brazil weren’t ready to go into battle without their main man. Everything about the 2014 World Cup, as far as the hosts were concerned, centred around Neymar – he was the poster boy of not just the team, but the whole tournament. Without their only world-class player, it was inconceivable that the Selecao could succeed where they had so painfully failed against Uruguay in 1950, and win a World Cup on home soil.
Four years on, the wounds are slowly healing. Brazil’s stellar form under manager Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, better known as Tite, has restored confidence, especially after a hugely cathartic friendly win in Germany – another game they played without Neymar.
Much has changed since 2014. However, there’s little doubt that Neymar is still the jewel in Brazil’s crown, and their biggest cause for optimism ahead of this summer’s tournament. And if anything, with a big point to prove after the ‘Mineirazo’, the pressure’s even greater.
WITH HIS KNACK FOR GENERATING CONTROVERSY, NEYMAR IS UNABLE TO SHAKE OFF THE DISTRUST OF FANS AND PUNDITS
It’s no exaggeration to say that losing their prodigy for that ill-fated semi-final represented a step into the unknown for Brazil. Neymar had been the only player to feature in all of the first 27 matches of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s second spell in charge, playing 92 per cent of the total minutes on offer before that infamous 7-1 shellacking.
In Russia, however, it appears the Selecao will be better prepared. Since Tite replaced Dunga in June 2016, Brazil have gone into six of their 19 fixtures without their best player, and have won five of them (against Venezuela, Colombia, Australia, Russia and finally Germany, winning 1-0 in March). A Neymar-less loss to Argentina is their only defeat under Tite to date. Plus, the mood in the camp is much better now than it was under Dunga.
“Tite has an impressive knowledge of the game and he’s a great leader,” says 33-year-old centre-back Miranda, who has become a regular in the side over the past four years. “He built a very solid tactical structure and knows how to get the best from every player.
“He’s a charismatic man too,” continues the Inter Milan defender. “Sometimes a manager has only 11 friends in the squad, but even the players who are on the bench love Tite.”
Brazil’s upward trajectory can be traced back to Tite’s arrival in the dugout. When he was hired, they were sixth in the South American qualifying table, and with only the top four or five countries making the cut (fifth would face a two-legged play-off against New Zealand), there were genuine fears that Brazil could miss out on the World Cup altogether, for the first time in their proud history. But the former Corinthians boss wasted no time in revolutionising the national team and, in March 2017, Brazil became the first team to secure an invite to this summer’s shindig. They finished 10 points ahead of second.
Miranda is right to emphasise Tite’s charisma. In addition to having excellent managerial skills, the 56-year-old is diplomacy personified, a characteristic crucial to reorganising the Selecao in a time of crisis. Not only has he drawn the squad to his side, he has seduced the whole country – a rare achievement for any Brazil coach.
One of the first things he did was to take the captaincy away from Neymar, who had been appointed by Dunga straight after the 2014 World Cup. It was a risky decision that many suspected would result in an unhappy star with a bruised ego. However, Neymar stepped aside without any complaint. Tite has since used 15 different captains in his 19 games as boss. It’s done the trick.
Tite himself tells FFT: “Everyone has some leadership characteristics, and I want all of my players to behave as we expect the captain to behave. Neymar respects and is respected by his team-mates. He enjoys playing for Brazil and we are happy to have him with us.”
At 26, Neymar will be heading to his second World Cup not as the tournament’s poster boy, but as the world’s most expensive player. His career has been anything but uneventful since sustaining that injury in Fortaleza four years ago, with a £198 million move to PSG following his crucial contributions to Barcelona’s treble win in 2015 and Brazil’s Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro a year later. The forward has added trophies to an already bulging cabinet and become an even more influential football personality since the last World Cup.
In his homeland, although there is unanimous appreciation of his shimmering talent and bedazzling skills, Neymar has been unable to shake off the distrust of pundits and supporters in the same way he shakes off opposition defenders. Some question whether he has the maturity to overcome adverse circumstances or provocation – and he does have an impressive knack for generating controversy.
In France, Neymar has already experienced the bizarre sensation of being booed by his own club’s supporters during a game in which he scored four goals and laid on two more. The crowd’s disapproval arose after the Brazilian denied his team-mate, fan favourite Edinson Cavani, a record-breaking penalty at the Parc des Princes.
Things were about to boil over.
RONALDO COMPARED THE PRESSURE ON NEYMAR IN 2014 TO HIS OWN EXPERIENCE AT FRANCE 98, WHEN HE WAS 21
Last November, with Brazil leading Japan 3-0 in a near-empty Stade Pierre-mauroy in Lille, Neymar let his emotions get the better of him, not once but twice. First, he clashed with the right-back Hiroki Sakai, cuffing him on the back of the head. The Samba star escaped with a booking, but after the game he made a surprise appearance in the post-match press conference – the scene of his second lashing out. Sat alongside Tite, he complained about the media “creating stories” regarding his rumoured rocky relationship with Cavani and PSG manager Unai Emery. He walked out in tears.
Former Selecao forward Walter Casagrande, a pundit for Brazilian channel Globo, has recently criticised Neymar for making selfish decisions during matches. After PSG’S 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the last 16 of
the Champions League, Casagrande claimed Neymar was “spoiled” and “putting the team at risk”. A few hours later, Neymar’s father hit back on social media, accusing the critic of “vulture behaviour” and promising his son would be reborn “as a phoenix”. Still, not everyone thinks the PSG superstar needs to grow up. “Neymar is much more mature now in comparison to 2014,” says Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho, who’ll line up behind him in Brazil’s starting XI this summer. “Don’t forget that he was in his first season in Europe then, and now he’s one of the best players on the continent. I believe there was an exaggerated pressure put on him in 2014, but he still managed to perform really well. Now he is an even better player as well as a more experienced man – that can only be good news for the Selecao.”
Prior to the 2014 World Cup, Brazilian legend Ronaldo compared the pressure on Neymar to that which was heaped on his own shoulders 20 years ago. Ronaldo went to France as a 21-year-old superstar, six months younger than Neymar was in 2014. Neither of them finished their World Cup campaigns in the manner they would have dreamed, as Ronaldo suffered an alarming convulsion on the day of the final against the hosts. Although O Fenomeno started that game in Paris, he was a shadow of himself as Brazil lost 3-0.
Sixteen years later, Neymar, despite dealing well with the pressure of being the poster boy for the home nation in what was his maiden World Cup, had his dreams cruelly ended by injury.
Ronaldo’s redemption followed four years later in South Korea and Japan. He scored eight goals, including two in the final, to blast Brazil to their fifth – and most recent – World Cup title. That fairy tale might inspire his compatriot this summer.
“Neymar will be as hungry as always,” insists Tite. “Imagine how frustrating that moment in 2014 was for him – and he has overcome it. Top players constantly have big challenges. The injury in 2014 is in the past. Maybe it could provide extra motivation for him.”
NEYMAR PRESSING OPPOSITION DEFENDERS IS NO LONGER A RARE SIGHT
Tite is doing everything in his power to ensure that all of his players are totally focused on the collective – and that includes Neymar.
The coach has managed to convince Brazil’s No.10 of his tactical importance to the side and he is now determined to do his bit, even when the team are out of possession. The once-rare sight of Neymar pressing opposition defenders is now more commonplace. Followers of Tite’s career won’t be that surprised: a solid base, team spirit and pressing from the front are hallmarks of his teams. The Selecao have played some attractive football recently, but make no mistake: Tite is a pragmatic and conservative manager at heart. His teams must be compact, and he’s certainly not an advocate of jogo bonito at the expense of a strong defence.
“I have no doubt that Neymar is now more committed in pressing the opposition,” says Zinho, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994. “This is one of the best things Tite has done for this team. If every player collaborates tactically, then it can only benefit the special individuals such as Neymar.”
Brazil held its collective breath when the PSG star’s World Cup preparations were disrupted by a broken metatarsal on February 25. Early speculation fed the fans’ worst fears: that their best player would miss the tournament. Thankfully for a nation still haunted by memories of that 7-1 hammering, Neymar is expected to be fully fit in time for Brazil’s opening game, against Switzerland on June 17.
They may have found a pragmatic playing style that will hold up in Neymar’s absence (it even helped them to beat Germany in Berlin), and they may have got their confidence and self-esteem back, but Brazil know their hopes in Russia rest on the shoulders of their No.10. And so does he.
RONALDO’S 2002 REDEMPTION MIGHT INSPIRE NEYMAR AFTER HIS OWN BREAKTHROUGH WORLD CUP ENDED In TEARS
Clockwise from below Neymar’s time in Paris has had ups and downs; the injury that deflated a nation; England could be quarter-final foes in Russia; Olympic gold in 2016 endeared Neymar to fans, for a while; eyes on the prize – the No.10 is determined...