Plight of Neymar a familiar worry for Brazil as World Cup looms
Coach Tite key to ensuring side don't crumble if their superstar becomes unavailable
Brazil striker Neymar celebrates scoring the winning penalty in the shootout against Germany at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Four years ago the host nation was obsessed with how their side would cope in a semi-final without its undisputed star after he was unfortunate enough to crack a vertebrae in the quarter-finals. Not well at all was the answer, as his team-mates crashed out in epic, humiliating style to eventual champions Germany in the historic 7-1 self-immolation in Belo Horizonte.
Now much of the build-up to this month’s tournament has again focused on the 26-year old attacker ever since he fractured the fifth metatarsal of his right foot playing for his club Paris Saint-Germain in February. The injury was headline news, there was a media vigil at the hospital back in Brazil where he had corrective surgery and there has been a stream of medical updates ever since.
The prognosis is cautious but optimistic. At Brazil’s training camp before flying out to Europe, Neymar admitted he is not yet back 100 per cent and still a little reluctant to fully trust the operated foot but felt he still had time. “There is nothing that can hold me back,” he told journalists. No one doubts that barring a cruel relapse he should be ready by June 17th to face the Swiss in Brazil’s World Cup opener.
That is crucial for Brazil. A whirl of attacking intent blessed with speed and close control, Neymar is his side’s differential, its added edge. Just 26 in February, he already has 53 goals for the national side and injury permitting can legitimately dream of overhauling the 95 scored by that other Santos protégé Pelé to become his country’s all-time top scorer. The highest scorer among the other 22 going to Russia is Barcelona midfielder Paulinho with 12 goals. The Brazilian media’s obsession with the player is rooted in those numbers.
Neymar has shown no sign of wilting under all the attention, which has recently included a public debate about whether his soap-acting girlfriend Bruna Marquezine should be able to join him or not in Russia. Indeed, he is a young man who seems to ache for the limelight off the pitch as much as he hungers for the ball on it and even as his right foot improves he is helping stoke another media storm currently brewing around him.
One party that has no doubt he would be ready to play in Russia are the owners of his club PSG who handed over €222 million to Barcelona to land the sort of player they hoped would finally lead the club to Champions League glory and so cement its place in the elite group of European mega-clubs. They travelled to Brazil during Neymar’s recovery to try to persuade him to return to Paris to continue his recovery under the watch of the club that pays his astronomic wages and perhaps even play a game or two before the season’s end.
But Neymar reportedly declined, making clear that once PSG had crashed out of the Champions League in his absence his focus was on Brazil and the World Cup. It was the latest example of the power the very top players now wield in the game, the kid from Mogi das Cruzes having no problem snubbing the polite request of his billionaire Qatari employer.
PSG have only themselves to blame having allowed Neymar a myriad of privileges denied to the rest of their star cast in order to tempt a genuine superstar at the peak of his playing career to what remains for many the relatively unglamorous French league. But his refusal to see out his recuperation in Paris only fuelled the long-standing rumour that the player is not long for the club and is trying to engineer a move to Real Madrid.
Whether there is any truth to the story amidst all the smoke and speculation surrounding this transfer saga, one hard fact stands out.
When offered a chance to quash the rumours by committing himself to another season in Paris Neymar refused to do so.
“The fact is Neymar could have come out at any time in the last few weeks and said he was staying at PSG and killed all speculation,” says Brazil football writer Andrew Downie, author of Doctor Socrates, the biography of the captain of Brazil’s legendary 1982 team. “Instead he has very ostentatiously chosen not to give any backing to the PSG project or the new manager. Read into that what you will. I do not think it necessarily means he is leaving but it shows he enjoys all the speculation and being the one everyone is talking about. He enjoys the publicity.”
In Brazil there has been some criticism of Neymar’s behaviour. When talk started that he wanted out of Paris in favour of Real Madrid, Juca Kfouri, one of the country’s most respected sports writers, warned for all his talent he would gain a reputation among fans as a mercenary: “Neymar runs the risk of being eaten by his own frivolity.”
It would be entirely in keeping with his career so far if he forced his way out of PSG, leaving a bitter taste among the club’s fans and humiliating the Qataris, repeating as it would the formula that saw him leave Santos for Barcelona and from there to Paris. But if from the outside having your star player caught up in the transfer saga of the summer looks a distraction so far, the rest of Brazil’s squad seems unfazed.
Composed of high-end operators, even without Neymar, Brazil’s team would demand to be included among the tournament favourites. The core of the squad is aged between 25 and 30, seasoned campaigners for clubs who expect to compete in the knock-out stages of the Champions League, though only six of the 23 called up for Russia are holdovers from the disaster of four years ago. In Manchester City’s 21-year old striker Gabriel Jesus Brazil have found another potential superstar who already looks ready to share goalscoring duties with Neymar.
In coach Tite they also have a leader who has re-infused the national team with a sense of calm and purpose after the initial failures to recover from the Germany debacle. Appointed after the firing of the 1994 World Cup-winning captain Dunga, he turned around Brazil’s stuttering qualifying campaign and since taking over there has been just one defeat in 19 games, in a friendly against Argentina in Australia.
Tite is an avid student of the game who has brought greater tactical flexibility to the side and has struck a better balance between loyalty and form than the unfortunate Felipão managed in 2014 when some of his key men ran out of gas a season too soon. But Tite’s main strength is man-management. “Brazilian players look up to their manager more than you see in other countries,” says Socrates’s biographer Downie. “Tite knows how to talk to them. He knows how to calm them. He knows how to get them playing for each other. He is a very good man-manager. He talks their language.”
Tite’s methodical preparations are now set to be tested in the heat of a tournament in which the pressure on the squad will be enormous. As five-time champions Brazil enter every World Cup shouldering huge expectations. The 7-1 defeat will loom in the background and will likely become a major talking point if, or more likely once, Brazil has to face a European superpower.
But the best testament to Tite’s work since taking over the side is that it is harder to envisage his charges suffering the same sort of emotional turmoil and crisis of confidence should they once again find themselves denied Neymar’s presence.
Brazil’s key players
The 26-year old PSG attacker is Brazil’s undisputed star on and especially off the field where his millions of followers can avidly follow his hectic social life, constantly evolving hairstyle and sartorial changes across multiple platforms that he also uses to sell the products of his numerous sponsors, earning him the nickname Neymarketing.
The well-travelled Tite has the respect and confidence of Brazil’s players and supporters having transformed the atmosphere around the seleção since taking it in hand in 2016. Earned his chance due to his work with Corinthians, having finally won the São Paulo club a Copa Libertadores, thus ending one of the great quests of South American football.
A key player in Tite’s all-conquering Corinthians side, the 29-year old midfielder will be seeking to cap his career’s remarkable second act with a winner’s medal in Russia. Part of the team humiliated by Germany, he was off-loaded by Tottenham after an unhappy two-year spell in London. He did a stint in the footballing wastes of China before Tite recalled him to the national side, a decision which paved the way for a transfer to Barcelona.