Star forward limped away from training ahead of Group E game against Costa Rica, but manager Tite is determined that never again should the sudden absence of one man drain collective self-belief in the way it did four years ago
At Camp Brazil, focus is on the collective rather than 'Neymarmania'
Camp Brazil for the duration of this World Cup is a secluded campus on the outskirts of Sochi. One view, the preferable one, is of the Black Sea; the other is of a motorway flyover, although the traffic noise is sufficiently distant not to disturb. There are other nations who rather envy Brazil’s efficiency in finding a hotel with neighbouring practice pitch in a resort city whose infrastructure was upgraded impressively for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Germany, who have a reputation for superbly efficient forward planning, had eyed Sochi as a base but were unable to secure a dedicated, exclusive pitch for the period. So they went inland, and, as the defending world champions made their way to the Black Sea coast ahead of Saturday’s must-win meeting with Sweden, the Germans may have regretted their decision not to be beside the seaside.
When campaigns falter, as Germany did by losing to Mexico, every aspect of planning is scrutinised. “If we had lost to Algeria in the last World Cup, people would have said our base-camp in Brazil was bad,” shrugged team manager Oliver Bierhoff, “That’s what happens when things don’t go perfectly.”
Over at Brazil’s HQ, a frisson of anxiety disturbed the calm on Tuesday afternoon. Neymar - who else? - was the cause. He had limped gingerly away from practice, nursing a sore ankle. This being Neymar, the episode overshadowed any other event. As Philippe Coutinho was honouring a previous commitment to reflect to reporters on his emotions about making his World Cup debut, and scoring one of the goals of the tournament so far on that debut, the juggernaut of Neymarmania came at him at full speed. How did he assess his colleague’s fitness? How would Brazil adjust without their superstar?
Coutinho’s answers soothed concerns. The soreness to Neymar’s ankle has healed sufficiently that he should be available for Friday’s match with Costa Rica, against whom Brazil hope to collect their first win of the tournament, after opening up with a 1-1 draw against Switzerland. “Having Neymar is a massive plus for us,” Coutinho stressed. ”He is brave and he initiates so many good moves. But our focus is on the collective.”
That is a notion that has been drummed into the current squad, by manager Tite. Neymar is Brazil's best match-winner, certainly, but Tite is determined that never again should the sudden absence of one man drain collective self-belief in the way it did four years ago, when Brazil hosted the World Cup. Then, as now, Neymar was the star, though not yet the planet’s most expensive footballer. When he was injured in the quarter-final, Brazil panicked at the loss of their totem, and lost 7-1 to Germany in the semi.
Neymar missed the last three months of this club season with Paris Saint-Germain with a metatarsal break, so he came to this World Cup with doubts about his match fitness and naturally he was heavily marked and tackled by the Swiss on his first competitive outing since February. “People always go for Neymar,” said Coutinho of the attention. “He gets fouled a lot.”
In Tite's system, with a well-manned midfield, the idea is that if Neymar is the magnet for opposition attention, others should be liberated. Coutinho, positioned towards the left of midfield, is an obvious beneficiary. It was cutting in from Neymar's left flank that he scored against Switzerland with what has become his trademark shot, across the goal, from distance, curling inside the far post. “I practice those a lot,” Coutinho acknowledged, “and that’s the position I get chances to shoot from. It’s a positive for Brazil that we have a few players who can score from long-range.”
Tite would suggest Brazil have lots of leaders, too. Camp Brazil likes to show off that it is a functioning democracy with the captain’s armband the symbol of that. It has passed from player to player in the past two years, from Willian to Marcelo, through Miranda and almost everybody. Coutinho is one of 16 captains Tite has named, on a game by game basis, and for Costa Rica Thiago Silva looks likely to inherit the armband from Marcelo. The implication? Neymar’s burden is shared.
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All of which will look like no more than a shallow gesture until Brazil play like the favourites for this World Cup. They lost momentum after Coutinho capitalised on a bright start against the Swiss, and the first week has drawn some criticism from pundits at home. It has featured two different hairstyles already from Neymar and the first anxiety over his health.
At Camp Brazil, the Neymar fitness bulletin has become a daily ritual; the hope is that it will not shape the whole mood of the place.