On the surface, all should be well within the Brazil camp.
Tite’sside are sailing towards World Cup qualification with 25 points from a possible 27, having suffered just one competitive defeat in the last three years and the memory of Copa America glory on home soil in 2019 still relatively fresh.
And yet, the Selecao seem stuck in a rut, and their famously demanding fans know it.
The wins keep coming, but they are greeted with indifference and impatience, with even the return of supporters to stadiums failing to ignite passions to any significant degree.
It is not enough, it never has been, for the five-time World Cup winners to merely triumph. They must do so with goals aplenty and with style and verve, two attributes that have been lacking for some time.
No wonder, then, that Neymar, the man charged with bringing joy to Brazil games, is near the end of his tether.
“I think it’s [Qatar 2022] my last World Cup,” the Paris Saint-Germain star said in DAZN’s new documentary, Neymar & The Line Of Kings.
“I see it as my last because I don’t know if I have the strength of mind to deal with football any more.
“So I’ll do everything to turn up well, do everything to win with my country, to realise my greatest dream since I was little. And I hope I can do it.”
Neymar’s Brazil colleagues rallied around him following that bombshell. “Neymar was good and so were the whole team,” coach Tite insisted to reporters following Sunday’s dour 0-0 draw against Colombia, the first time the Selecao have failed to win in this World Cup qualifying competition.
“Maybe he’s expected to do exceptional things all the time and make a difference all the time.
“He’s an exceptional player because he produces exceptional moments, but not all the time. He’s a different player, we know that.” Manchester United midfielder Fred added: “We all know about the pressure he feels, but we are very happy with him in the national team.
“We want him to stay in the team for a long time, because of his football ability and what a great player he is. We will fight so he stays with us for many years yet.”
The draw in Bogota, coming hot on the heels of an unconvincing comeback victory over Venezuela, encapsulated Neymar’s dilemma in international colours.
The PSG star was obliged to force the play time and again, with little help coming from those around him, and in his desperation continually erred in the face of fierce Colombia marking.
His last seven international games have yielded just two goals, and even though he is just eight shy of Pele’s all-time Brazil scoring record, he seems to be drifting ever further from being named in the same breath as the Selecao legend or other World Cup winning idols like Garrincha, Jairzinho, Romario or Ronaldo.
At this point, Neymar might well be forgiven for casting an envious glance over at his great friend and new PSG team-mate.
Lionel Messi may be five years the Brazilian’s senior, but he is playing with a joy and verve rarely glimpsed in the decade-and-a-half he has spent leading the Argentina line.
Still on top of the world after downing their arch-rivals in the Copa America final, the Albiceleste are 24 games unbeaten and revelling in every game they play.
More than a national team, this current Argentina incarnation comes across as spontaneous, free-wheeling and fearless as a touring group of high school graduates.
Each goal and win is celebrated with unbridled delight, both on the pitch and in the newly-repopulated rafters of the Estadio Monumental, while Messi’s Instagram feed now resembles that of a cocksure teenager, filled with candid photos having fun with his colleagues, inside jokes and snappy exchanges with the likes of Rodrigo de Paul, Emiliano Martinez and Alejandro Gomez.
“The fans’ support is amazing, to experience and enjoy this gets better every time,” he beamed after Monday’s 3-0 win over Uruguay. “The bond between the team and the supporters boosts us, it carries us when things go wrong… thank you once more for how you make me feel, I’m so happy, may it never end!”
His Brazilian counterpart, on the other hand, seems to find international duty more and more of a burden as the years go by.
Neymar’s two attempts at the World Cup have both ended in disappointment, while even the 2019 Copa win – historically seen as a minor prize by local fans – was achieved without him due to a pre-tournament injury.
Olympic Games gold in 2016 aside, the last seven years with Brazil have brought their fair share of pain and precious little cause for celebration for a man signalled since he was still a child as Pele’s natural heir to the title of his nation’s greatest.
At the age of 29, then, he finds himself at a cross-roads. Barring another injury or unforeseen catastrophe he will be at Qatar, leading a team that has just over a year to find their groove and show that after the blow of losing to Messi’s Argentina in July’s final, they can prevail against top opposition when it matters most.
Should they win – and despite all the storm clouds hanging over Brazil, they have the all-round talent and depth to be counted among the favourites – Neymar might consider that his task in the international game is complete, and bow out on a high.
If Tite’s men fall short again, though, he will have to decide whether he has the desire to put himself through four more punishing years and have another go at the big prize in the twilight of his career in 2026, at the age of 34.
The forward still retains an avid following in his home nation. It was Neymar’s name, alongside that of Flamengo ace Gabriel Barbosa, that sounded loudest as fans in the Amazonian city of Manaus flocked to greet their heroes ahead of Thursday’s clash with Uruguay.
One the pitch, meanwhile, Leeds United’s Brazil new boy Raphinha was one of the few players to come away with credit against Venezuela and Colombia, and will likely be rewarded with a starting berth for this last qualifier of the round.
Raphinha’s trickery and fearless dribbling injected new life into both the Selecao and Neymar on Sunday, and with Uruguay reeling after their drubbing at the hands of Argentina, this could prove the perfect stage for the duo to prove relentless result-driven professionalism need not come at the expense of individual expression and joie de vivre.
Neymar’s Brazil story is far from over, then, but the countdown has started to what may prove the defining moment of his career in Qatar.
How he handles that pressure, and whether he flourishes or flounders under the burden, is likely to determine once and for all if he deserves that place among Brazil’s glittering past idols, or if he will ultimately go down as just another good performer who could not quite reach the heights of his predecessors.