Slapped with a suspension for a red card earned in the dying seconds of Brazil’s Copa America loss to Colombia Wednesday, Neymar will be forced to miss the Selecao’s final group stage match against Venezuela Sunday.
Last summer, with the Barcelona talisman knocked out of action with a cracked vertebrae at the World Cup, Brazil were undone by a German side that picked them off clinically on its way to becoming the first European team to win the Cup in South America. One popular narrative since then has it that had Neymar been fit things might’ve gone differently against the Germans. But on the evidence of Brazil’s showing in the Copa America so far, that doesn’t necessarily seem the case.
This was particularly apparent in Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to Colombia. While in the opening match against Peru, Neymar shone; against Colombia we saw his other side. Petulant toward referees and teammates, diving, making poor decisions, trying to do everything himself, it was a pastiche of all the negative stereotypes surrounding the player who is both Brazil’s most talented and most frustrating.
While the manager may have changed, Dunga’s Brazil appears to be just as overly reliant on Neymar as Big Phil Scolari’s team was last summer. It was a risky strategy then, as an injury left them with no plan B. And it’s a risky strategy now, as we saw when Colombia succeeded in frustrating the Barça man to the point where he was eventually shown a red card.
Now for the second major tournament in a row, Brazil find themselves heading into a must-win match without the player around which the team has been built. Dunga was probably correct in his statement that Colombia deliberately tried to wind Neymar up. But isn’t that to be expected? At Barcelona, Neymar flourishes because he has Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez to attract defenders and open up space for him. With Brazil he has little to work with, and Colombia coach Jose Pekerman got it right by allowing his players to get under Neymar’s skin.
But although he had a poor game against Colombia, Neymar can’t take all the blame. As uneven as he is at times, the players around him are much, much worse.
The Brazil team that won the 2002 World Cup featured the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka. Ronaldo was at Inter, Rivaldo at Barça and Ronaldinho at PSG. Kaka was at Sao Paulo but would soon join AC Milan. Today, apart from Neymar, the other current forwards in the Brazil squad are Robinho (Santos), Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim) and Diego Tardelli (Shandong Luneng).
Are these really the best players Dunga could find? It’s a sad testament to the current state of Brazilian football that this looks to be the case. As hot-and-cold as Brazil are with Neymar, it’s hard to imagine where they’d be without him.
With the current dearth of world-class Brazilian attackers, the team will have to continue to rely on Neymar. There are of course worse players to have to rely on. In the opening game against Peru, we saw him at his mercurial best; taking on defenders, taking shots from outside, opening up space and playing a delicious pass to set up Douglas Costa for the winning goal. But without any other top players to share the attacking burden, the pressure is all on him. And now the Barça man is set to miss what could be a must-win game against Venezuela.
It’s a shame really because it need not have been this way when you consider that the best striker in Europe for the past two seasons running is Brazilian. Unfortunately, he plays for Spain and his name is Diego Costa.