A few months ago, Zico, one of Brazilian football’s great heroes and one of its great No. 10s, sat in an upstairs office at his academy in Recreio on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, talking about the Qatar World Cup.
“We have a great chance,” he said. “We have a good team and the youngsters – Vini, Antony and Raphinha – are our great hope.”
He did not mention Neymar. Not until he was asked anyway. Many analysts from the Brazil team are like that. Neymar is second only to Pele in goals scored for his country, but the Brazilians are struggling to embrace him wholeheartedly.
Neymar remains the man who can make the difference in a star-studded team in Brazil
So when I asked Zico if he was a fan of Neymar, of the current number 10 of the national team, the jewel in the glittering crown of this Brazil team trying to win the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, he looked at me with something between a grimace and a grin. “Of his football, yes,” he said.
Zico is a charming man and a diplomat, so he left the rest unsaid. But if Brazilians have struggled to take Neymar to their hearts in the same way they worshiped Zico, Ronaldo and other modern heroes, it is because he is still seen as something of a dilettante off the pitch.
He is lavishly talented, but the most he has won for his country is Olympic gold in Rio in 2016. This tournament in Qatar represents his best chance to get it right.
Neymar’s name still received a massive roar of approval when it was read out here last night before Brazil’s opening 2-0 win against Serbia. In a team with all the talent, a team that is the favorite to win the tournament, Neymar remains the man who can make the difference.
His chances of winning the World Cup on home soil were destroyed eight years ago when he was brutally kicked out of the tournament. A knee to the back in Brazil’s game against Colombia broke one of his vertebrae and forced him to miss the 7-1 semi-final humiliation of Germany.
Neymar was mercilessly hacked down by Serbia midfielder Nemanja Gudelj in the second half
On Thursday evening, he was in the center of another injury scare.
He had an early taste of rough treatment when Filip Mladenovic tore the shirt off his back a few minutes in. At the start of the second half, he was mercilessly hacked down by Nemanja Gudelj as he sprinted towards the Serbia defence. Midway through the innings, he was the tournament’s most failed player so far.
Then late in the game he turned his right ankle after another heavy challenge. He was substituted and when he took off his boot the ankle already looked swollen. After the match, the Brazilian team doctor said he had suffered a “trauma” in his ankle. He said they would have to wait 24 to 48 hours before a full assessment was possible.
Brazil will desperately hope he is OK. Even with Vinicius Jnr dancing down the left, Raphinha dazzling down the right and Richarlison pulling defenders in every direction down the middle, Neymar was still the star of the show last night, at least until the Tottenham striker’s stunning second goal.
Neymar turned his right ankle after another heavy challenge in the second half
Brazil are favorites for a reason, they looked the favourites, and if they win this World Cup and if he is fit to play for the rest of their campaign, Neymar will be their front man. That much is already obvious.
It was his mercurial skills that forced the breakthrough Brazil wanted just after the hour mark. He turned one way and the other in the box, Vinicius hit a shot and Richarlison blocked the rebound.
Richarlison scored it but Neymar inspired it. As age dims the light shining from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar still looks like a player in his prime.
He has never quite entered the same bracket as Messi, now his team-mate at Paris Saint-Germain, or Ronaldo, or even his fellow PSG team-mate, Kylian Mbappe. But if he can lead Brazil to World Cup victory here, Neymar could still rise to the pantheon of the game’s greats.
Neymar’s ankle was already looking swollen when he took off his boot after being substituted