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WATCH: How Brazil can recapture World Cup glory
Brazilian manager Tite back in March called Neymar “irreplaceable” in Brazil’s bid for a record sixth World Cup title, and the rest of the world nodded in agreement. Now the superstar forward is scrambling to be what Brazil needs after missing three months with injury.
Neymar, 26, suffered a sprained ankle and broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot Feb. 25 in a Ligue 1 match for Paris Saint-Germain, and he’s just returned to training. Tite included his most important player on the World Cup roster — of course he did — but it’s not yet certain that Neymar will be ready to play, nor that he’ll have regained the requisite fitness and found his best form.
Don’t bet against him. He’s the third name in the Messi-Ronaldo debate, generally acknowledged as their successor as “world’s greatest,” but some think he’s the apex now. Pelé said so back in 2012. Pelé also has a rooting interest in Neymar: Both emerged from Santos’ youth teams and made their names with the storied club.
Neymar has been compared with Pelé and Ronaldinho, also among Brazil’s greats, and with Messi, whom Neymar says is “above everyone.” But he’s his own player, a dashing, fluid attacker who can dazzle on the dribble, is a precise finisher, and creates havoc for opposing defenses while creating chances for teammates.
Positioned usually on the left side of the forward line in a 4-3-3 formation but also as a second forward or winger, Neymar has been a steady scorer everywhere he’s played — for Brazil at several levels and with Santos, Barcelona and since August at PSG — and netted 30 goals in 28 games this season before he was hurt. He’s got 53 goals in 83 caps for Brazil, behind only Pelé, his countryman Ronaldo, and Romario.
He’s the world’s most expensive player — going to PSG in a controversial $260 million transaction, with a move to Real Madrid or Manchester United rumored for this summer — and the face not only of Brazil’s national team, but of the entire country. His image is ubiquitous, his fame absolute, and the entirety of the country’s World Cup dream rests on his shoulders.
Neymar, then 18, missed the 2010 World Cup despite a petition drive and support from Pelé and Romario, and he was terrific at home four years ago, scoring four goals in group play and prodding the Canarinho into the quarterfinals. His tournament ended there against Colombia when he was kneed in the back, suffering fractured vertebrae, and missed the 7-1 semifinal humiliation against Germany. The magnitude of that defeat is wrapped around the perception of that team, but Neymar exited the Cup with an enhanced reputation.
Brazil, which last won the World Cup in 2002, will bring its best side since then to Russia. There’s extraordinary attacking talent around the field, at least two-deep in most positions, and Tite has restored some of the trademark Samba flair absent during the more blue-collar Dunga’s stints in charge. His 4-1-4-1 alignment, designed to maximize interchange up front while keeping things tight at the back, was installed in part to give Neymar a landscape where he’s free to go where he desires while combining with the likes of Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho.Their form in qualifying was exceptional, and Brazil heads to Russia as the likeliest team to be celebrating at the finish if defending champion Germany falters. Does Brazil have the talent to do it without Neymar? Perhaps, but it can’t replace Neymar’s immense quality, his leadership, nor his willingness to carry the team if needed. The whole of the nation is praying he’ll be ready to do so.