Ney­mar puts his back into it

Right­ing the wrongs of 2014 is top of the Brazil star’s agenda

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Felipe Rocha

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.


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.


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.”


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.


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...

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