The Selecao’s triumph was achieved with Neymar sitting in the Maracana stands, with his club strife proof he has become a distractive influence
It was the crowning moment of this Brazil side, reward for three years of hard work and consolidation following their brush with rock-bottom.
Having endured a humiliating first-round exit under dour Dunga in 2016, the Selecao were back with a vengeance this time to take the Copa America trophy and break their 12-year drought. And while this may not have been a vintage Brazil team, from Alisson to Roberto Firmino and from veteran Dani Alves to the youthful verve of Everton they boasted heroes across the pitch.
One man was conspicuous by his absence, however. While his team-mates – and, rather bizarrely, President Jair Bolsonaro, who took a front-row spot in the photos, trophy in hand – celebrated on the Maracana pitch following Sunday’s 3-1 defeat of Peru, Neymar watched from the stands recovering from the ankle injury that ruled him out of contention.
By all accounts the Paris Saint-Germain star was hardly missed at the Copa. Perhaps his misfortune was even a blessing in disguise for Tite’s men, who caught a glimpse of life without Neymar and found it was far from unpleasant.
As fate would have it, the very man who replaced the former captain in the starting line-up proved one of the stars of the show. Everton supplied the same electric pace and dribbling ability as his more illustrious compatriot and shared the Golden Boot with Paolo Guerrero with three goals, including a fine finish to open the scoring against Peru.
“If Neymar were here I would probably have had few opportunities. I knew that I had to take advantage of any chance that came my way,” the Gremio star told reporters after victory in the final. “Thanks to God things went my way.”
If Brazil lost little on the pitch without their superstar, off the pitch they were arguably in even better shape. Nobody doubts Neymar’s talents, which put him among the top three or five players in the world. But there has been equally little doubt that the whirlwind of controversy and spectacle that seems to follow the forward can cause a hugely disruptive influence in the dressing room.
The Selecao suffered that phenomenon first hand 12 months ago. Having arrived at the World Cup in Russia with just weeks to spare following another injury, Neymar contrived to turn his nation’s entire campaign into a circus with him as the ringmaster.
His diving, petulance and other antics became the defining aspect of Brazil’s World Cup, which did neither him nor the team any good. Amid accusations and counter-accusations of gamesmanship and rough treatment from opposition defenders the Selecao bombed out at the quarter-final stage against Belgium, their star drawing a blank while pleading for non-existent penalties.
History, of course, does not necessarily repeat itself. But in this summer of 2019 all indications suggest that, far from maturing with age, Neymar’s ego continues to grow at an outstanding rate. If he had been at the Copa, Brazil would also have had to deal with his bitter stand-off with PSG and brazen courting of former club Barcelona. This all came to a head the very day after the final with his failure to turn up for pre-season training .
“Paris Saint-Germain deplores this situation and will take the appropriate measures resulting from it,” the club signalled in an angry statement released on Monday. Perhaps the only surprise was that the rebuke has taken so long to arrive, following a year which has seen the soccer professional launch a foul-mouthed tirade at UEFA officials and even strike a fan in the middle of a packed stadium.
Now, after weeks of hints that he wants out of the side that made him the world’s most expensive soccer professional just two years ago and despite Neymar Sr’s claims his late return to training had been previously agreed to, it seems the Parisians have reached the end of their tether with his chronic indiscipline.
Indeed, PSG’s new sporting director Leonardo admitted later on Monday evening that the soccer professional was for sale at the right price.
In contrast, Neymar-less Brazil took to the pitch as a harmonious, well-drilled unit. No polemic statements or controversial behaviour filtered through the walls of the dressing room, no single soccer professional took it upon himself to grab the limelight for anything other than his own performance.
“Neymar can make the difference, in normal conditions he can change games,” Tite explained.
“But then we have a team, this has been the national team which needs to be united and strong. Because if Neymar isn’t here somebody else has to step up, like [David] Neres or Everton.”
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While Neres had a difficult Copa, Everton fully complied and exceeded with his coach’s expectations. Now the onus will be on Neymar to win his place back in the squad, and he may not find it an easy task.
It will not escape anyone’s attention that Brazil’s first major title since the Copa America triumph of 2007 (aside from two Confederations Cup wins) came without their supposed talisman. Nor will the fact that, with new talents like Everton, Neres, Richarlison and, from outside this squad, Vinicius Junior coming through the ranks, his place has been now far from assured.
Neymar’s ability has been not – nor has it ever been – in question. But this victory should be taken as a warning that he has been not irreplaceable in the Brazil set-up. At 27 it has been time for the star to grow up and accept that his erratic behaviour has been damaging his career both for club and for country.