Sunday 26 May 2019

Brazil look for Neymar to stand tall after his 13 minutes, 50 seconds on the ground

Neymar has spent a lot of time on the turf
Neymar has spent a lot of time on the turf
Neymar: Sensitive to criticism. Photo: Reuters

Sam Wallace

It was February on the 'Bate-Bola' football show on ESPN-Brasil and the presenter, Joao Carlos Albuquerque, was leading a discussion on whether Neymar's broken metatarsal on his right foot would rule him out of the World Cup, when they received an unexpected call.

The caller was Neymar Santos Snr, father, agent, PR man and general architect, for good or for bad, of his son's career. Neymar Snr was eager to explain why it would be better for his son to have the operation on his toe, which he eventually did, going through rehabilitation to miss Paris St-Germain's doomed Champions League campaign, but recover in time to be part of Russia 2018.

At the time, he launched into a monologue about his son's injury, ruling out PSG's hope that he may be able to recover without surgery and said that he would be back by the end of April - although Neymar never played again for his club that season.

Then Neymar Snr put the phone down and it was only through a good deal of cajoling that they managed to get him back on the line for a conversation that made headlines around the world.

The Neymar camp, and in particular his father, are notoriously sensitive to criticism and it would be fair to say that, at this World Cup finals, there has been a lot of it.

Neymar is the most famous footballer left in the tournament, but it has been hard to tell at times in Russia - less jogo bonito, more like a high-profile politician parachuted into hostile territory to help fight an exhausting but crucial by-election.

The criticism has mostly been about the 13 minutes 50 seconds of the four games Neymar has played at Russia 2018 that, according to a study by the Swiss broadcaster RTS, has been spent by him prostrate on the turf.

Be that wincing, complaining or the occasional rolling over and over at the approximate pace of a tumble-dryer on medium setting.

The round-of-16 game against Mexico accounted for 5min 29sec of the total alone.

He has also scored twice, adding to his mountainous international stats of 57 goals in 89 caps, although those numbers do not quite tell the whole story.

Neymar goes into today's quarter-final against Belgium in Kazan as the most fouled player in the tournament - 23 suffered over four games. Neymar has also had the most attempts on goal (23), compared to Harry Kane's nine for a return of six goals in one fewer match.

He has lost the ball more than any of his peers (37) and he has dribbled into the area 16 times, more than Eden Hazard (nine), Lionel Messi (seven), Cristiano Ronaldo (six), Luis Suarez (five) and Kylian Mbappe (three).

The numbers suggest that Neymar regards Brazil's possession as something chiefly he gets to squander or exploit, although this is far from a one-man team.

Brazil have not looked so solid defensively in recent years as they do now, having conceded just once all tournament, against Serbia.

They have so far coped with injuries to Dani Alves before the tournament, to Danilo and Douglas Costa since then and a centre-forward, Gabriel Jesus, who has not scored in four games.

Nevertheless, Neymar promises to fulfil a key component of Brazil's tradition, that being the individual supremacy of a single player, a category that they have not dominated for the best part of a decade.

A reminder, in the dusk of the Messi-Ronaldo supremacy, that historically there is no country that has been quite so consistent at producing one man capable of leaving another looking blankly at the space where the ball used to be.

Even so, the histrionics have prompted division over Neymar in Brazil, where they have never had a player quite so monumentally self-absorbed in such prominence in their national team.

It may well turn out to be Neymar's talent that is impossible to ignore at Russia 2018 but, in the meantime, it is hard to recall a Brazilian star so blatantly making it about himself in such an unappealing fashion.

For Brazil's head coach, Tite, who has defended his star player's behaviour relentlessly, there has been the awkward question of the footage of him from 2012 speaking after a game between his Santos side and Corinthians, then featuring a 20-year-old Neymar.

"Faking and trying to take advantage, that's not part of the game," Tite says. "That's a bad example for any kid."

Not even a novelty chocolate Ballon d'Or prize for guessing who Tite was talking about. Now, Tite likes to point out that Neymar is fouled more than any player, and others point out that he has lived with the pressure of being the child-prince of Brazilian football when he was 16.

He was already a celebrity as a rookie professional, learning how to survive in a, sometimes, brutal domestic league.

Even Pele used to lead with an elbow when the situation required it, but Neymar has found another way.

The rolling around and the weeping, all of them seem to be a way of dealing with the pressure of delivering for Brazil.

Certainly in 2014 it was hard to imagine Brazil without Neymar, and then when they were without him, it was hard to recognise Brazil.

This time around, they seem better able to cope and, strangely, he seems to be finding it harder. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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