It’s not too whimsical to state that if you were to take Neymar out of Brazil’s starting line-up it would be left looking a little ordinary. While the team is crammed with experienced, accomplished footballers – as it always has been – in 2014, the emphasis is on functionality rather than flamboyance.
Therefore, Luiz Felipe Scolari feels that his best chance of success this summer is to create the conditions for Brazil’s cynosure to flourish. The unspectacular but efficient Fred acts as a target man, sucking in opposition defenders. Luiz Gustavo sits as an anchorman on the left side of central midfield, providing cover as Marcelo gallivants forward down the flank. It all creates space for the poster boy, the spotlight. Simply put, Neymar has to deliver.
Brazil is a football nation that has always admired its superstars, whether it be Pele or Ronaldo, Tostao or Garrincha. These players acknowledged the enormous pressure they faced and the romantic expectations that an adoring public placed upon them. Ultimately, they thrived on it, each one of them returning home with a winner’s medal. How will the latest chosen one cope?
Arguably, he’s under more pressure than each of those luminaries. With the tournament taking place on Brazilian soil, the thirst for a Selecao success is staggering. And with previous idols Ronaldinho, Robinho and Kaka all watching from their own sofas the ex-Santos forward has a heavy burden to carry.
At his best, Neymar is undoubtedly one of the planet’s most exciting players. Equally comfortable with either foot, he’s at his best when driving at defenders, demonstrating his silky skills and explosiveness in equal measure. It’s a style – borne about by a relaxed, typically South American easygoingness – that encouraged Barcelona to shell out almost £50m for his services last summer.
But Neymar has had a thorny first campaign in Europe. The Catalan giants fell short in La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey, with their marquee signing floating in and out of key matches like a lost boy in a supermarket. Though he finished with 14 goals in all competitions, expectations were set far higher. There was controversy surrounding his switch to Camp Nou too, with authorities accusing Barcelona of tax fraud in completing the deal. In short, it’s not been the ideal setup for the biggest few weeks of his career.
Some players are just comfortable at international level, though. That certainly appears to be the case with Neymar. A hat-trick against South Africa in March took his international goal tally to 30 goals in 47 caps – lifting him to 11th on Brazil’s all-time top scorers list. This is a young man who adores representing his country and has already proved he can perform in tournaments, having scored four times in the Confederations Cup last summer.
But the World Cup is a different animal and billions of eyes will be concentrating on Neymar’s contributions. It’s often said that the greatest players of all time prove themselves at the big international tournaments. Arguably, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo haven’t quite done that yet.
If Brazil’s Neymar can cope with the demands and inspire his nation to a sixth World Cup trophy, he guarantees his place as a legend – alongside Pele and Garrincha – at just 22-years-old.
Keep an eye out for…
Mateo Kovacic – Croatia: Tipped as the new Luka Modric after emerging through the highly-respected Dinamo Zagreb youth system, Kovacic was snapped up by Inter in winter 2013. His first full season at the San Siro has been tough, with the 20-year-old expected to live up to Nerazzurri playmakers of old, such as Wesley Sneijder.
But there were signs of him maturing towards the end of the season, as he laid on three fabulous assists for his team mates in a 4-1 win over Lazio. Along with Modric and Ivan Rakitic, he’ll be expected to pull the strings for the Croats this summer.
Oribe Peralta – Mexico Having starred in his homeland for the entirety of his career, Peralta will be a relative unknown to many World Cup followers. The 30-year-old is one of the first names on the team sheet under Miguel Herrera – even above Manchester United poacher Javier Hernandez.
The 30-times-capped frontman starred at London 2012, scoring two goals in the gold medal match, which Mexico won. Peralta claimed 19 goals for club side Santos Laguna last season and has found the net a total of 60 times over the past three Liga MX campaigns.
Nicolas N’Koulou – Cameroon The Marseille central defender is an indispensable part of the Cameroon spine, and his partnership with Aurelien Chedjou could decide how much of a say the nation has in Brazil. Still only 24, he’s being closely tracked by a number of Europe’s elite, with Arsenal long-time admirers.
The former Monaco man started all but one of his club’s Ligue 1 fixtures over the past two seasons and his experience will prove invaluable as the Indomitable Lions aim to frustrate their Group A opponents.