Neymar

Neymar, the finest Brazilian footballer of his generation, goes to his third World Cup still the biggest star in a very talented squad, although this time with a supporting cast of exciting young players.

Vinicius Junior is emerging as the one most likely to inherit the responsibility of leading Brazil, along with the likes of Rodrygo, Antony and Gabriel Martinelli.

The future will unfold without Tite, the head coach who is stepping down after Qatar, and perhaps without Neymar, who has been saying for months that it might be his final World Cup.

At 30, he is weary of the pressure, the scrutiny that comes with carrying Brazilian hopes for a decade. He feels there is too much criticism, especially relating to his behaviour away from the pitch.

‘There are injustices for being Neymar,’ he said in an interview with Globo Esporte in June.

‘I’ve heard things in my career and I’ve heard things to this day that I look at and think are meaningless. I could not reach the numbers I have without taking care of myself in my career, without having trained, without having fought to conquer it all.

‘In this sense, unfair criticism hurts me a lot because no one knows the reality of what I go through. Nobody knows about my day to day.’

Neymar has always felt aggrieved by his portrayal in the media. For many years his lifestyle choices were the focus of attention, especially when he was spotted partying at the Rio Carnival when he was out injured.

There have been high-profile investigations into his tax affairs and his transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint- Germain, although most recently he has attracted criticism for his politics.

‘The day I don’t want to take care of myself any more, I won’t play football,’ said Neymar. ‘People have to understand my life is not the way they imagine it. I am here to break records, to try to make history in the national team. I have already built a long history in the squad and I want to finish it well.’

Look at his numbers and Neymar belongs among the legends.

He has 121 caps and 75 goals for Brazil, second only in the goal charts to Pele, who scored 77. In Qatar, there is every chance he will pass the man known to Brazilians simply as The King.

Tite’s team start their campaign against Serbia tomorrow week, followed by Switzerland and Cameroon in Group G.

The Pele comparisons have been present since Neymar emerged at Santos, the same club, and was hailed by many as his natural successor. As time went by, the challenge proved greater than the dream.

Despite his glittering career at Barcelona and PSG, Neymar has yet to win the Ballon d’Or. Even in recent years, with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the twilight of their careers, he has been unable to fill the void.

Pele won the World Cup as a teenager and three times by the age of 30. Neymar has not yet truly impressed at the global jamboree. In 2014, when Brazil were hosts and the weight of expectation most intense, he hurt his back in a quarter-final against Colombia and was unable to play in the humiliating 7-1 defeat by Germany in the semi-finals.

Four years later, in Russia, he missed more than three months beforehand with a broken metatarsal, returning to action in the warm-up friendlies and scoring twice in the tournament, but could not prevent a quarter-final defeat by Belgium.

This year, Neymar goes into the World Cup in better condition and there is reason to believe Qatar could be a different story. He is physically fit and in good form, with 15 goals in 20 games for PSG. Tite’s team is strong and well balanced, with a wealth of options, and went unbeaten through the qualifiers. They are the bookies’ favourites to claim the title for a sixth time.

‘I’m sure we have the potential to go far,’ Neymar told Globo Esporte. ‘Although a lot of people don’t trust us, we will demonstrate the difference. This squad has a lot of talent, a lot of good things. I want to play this World Cup and dedicate myself to it.

‘I will play like it’s my last. I play each game as if it were the last because I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

‘I can’t guarantee I will play another. I honestly don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. It depends. There will be a different coach and I don’t know if the coach will like me.’

In Brazil, this World Cup arrives with a different context. Politically, the country is deeply divided, which was evident in last month’s presidential election, when right-wing populist Jair Messias Bolsonaro, in office since 2018, lost by less than two per cent of the vote to veteran socialist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The political divide has dominated everything and football has found itself dragged into the argument with Bolsonaro using Brazil’s colours and the iconic yellow shirt at rallies and in promotional imagery.

His opponents claim the shirt has been tarnished due to Bolsonaro’s anti-lockdown policies during Covid — which he said was ‘no deadlier than flu’ — the rapid deforestation of the Amazon delta under his rule and his ultra-conservative stances, saying women deserve to be paid less than men and that he would rather his child died than be gay. Some still refuse to wear the shirt and want to see Tite’s team play in blue.

The Brazilian FA (CBF), fearing a disconnection between the team and many fans, launched an ad campaign in an attempt to reverse the damage. The players reportedly agreed not to show support for either candidate at election time. But Neymar openly backed Bolsonaro, recording videos and using his social media accounts to spread his messages to his millions of followers. He even promised to dedicate his first goal in the World Cup to Bolsonaro.

In return, Lula joked that Neymar was worried because if he won he would know the details of the tax deal Neymar struck with Bolsonaro. None of this helped the CBF defuse the problem with the shirt, and served to infuriate many Brazil fans.

Can Neymar make all this disappear by winning the World Cup? It will probably depend on his performances and his conduct.

If he goes ahead with his pledge to dedicate goals to the former president, he will alienate half of the population.

But if he leads Brazil to their sixth world title, avoids political complications and helps heal the country through football, he may yet capture the hearts of a nation and take his place in the pantheon of the greatest Brazilian footballers.

Neymar’s true legacy will be defined in Qatar.

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