FIFA World Cup 2018: Peripheral and petulant, Neymar fails to inspire Brazil as they lose to Belgium

The questions came thick and fast: Why didn’t you score a goal? What happened? Why couldn’t you beat Belgium? Gabriel Jesus almost teared up, Alisson offered a blank response and Miranda, in his soft voice, tried to explain. Well past midnight, they all tried to explain, but Brazil were left shocked and stunned by Belgium’s tactical ingenuity and artful counter-attacking, spearheaded by the potent trident of the combative Romelu Lukaku, the guileful Eden Hazard and metronome Kevin De Bruyne.

Neymar, Brazil’s talisman, didn’t talk. He walked through the mixed zone, stony faced. This was supposed to have been his World Cup. At 26, Neymar is at the peak of his powers. Last summer he moved from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, and, whatever the financial considerations, the transfer was also in part designed to escape Messi’s shadow and expand his full talent. Neymar’s season, however, was always going to be defined, not by his exploits in Ligue 1 or in the Champions League for that matter, but by the World Cup. In fact, the 2018 World Cup may well have decided how Neymar will live on in the global conscience and how he will be remembered in the future.

 FIFA World Cup 2018: Peripheral and petulant, Neymar fails to inspire Brazil as they lose to Belgium

Brazil's Neymar reacts during the quarter-final against Belgium. Reuters

He arrived in Russia with little match fitness following his metatarsal injury, a medical complication that gripped Brazil for weeks and months on end: would Neymar play at the World Cup? The No 10 began slowly, playing in the shadow of the excellent Philippe Coutinho, who drove much of Brazil’s attacking play from a central role in the first two games against the staunch Swiss and the ultra-defensive Costa Ricans. He exerted more influence against Serbia, but Neymar really excelled against Mexico in the Round of 16.

For the first time in the tournament, Neymar played for the team. His feints, his accelerations and his passes were functional. He tracked back and at times resembled a box-to-box player. There was little showboating and his Socratic back heel carved dislodged Mexico’s defence leading up to Brazil’s opening goal. Neymar was hitting his stride, his form rising as a crescendo. Tite thought as much, always reiterating that Neymar needed a few games to be at the top.

In Brazil’s other World Cup games, Neymar had been accused of egoism, exacerbated by his many histrionics in situations of contact with opponents. Neymar rolled and rolled, and the internet exploded with memes and criticism: by consensus, Neymar was a play-actor, who belonged on stage in the Bolshoi Theatre, but then perhaps that was too complimentary as the Brazilian oversold himself. The tears after the final whistle against Costa Rica didn’t help either. The emotional outburst almost reduced Brazil’s entire World Cup campaign about Neymar. The PSG player got the emotional tone of the match wrong. It begged the question if Tite had indulged his star player a bit too much, risking his team’s internal hierarchy.

Neymar’s tetchy behaviour undermined Brazil, the player ever a faux diva, always craving the centre of attention. His histrionics reached a crescendo against Mexico, but still it was expected that Neymar would hit full form against Belgium. He never did. At best he was peripheral, and petulant yet again. Belgium’s right side of Thomas Meunier, Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku overpowered Brazil’s powerful left side of Marcelo, Coutinho and Neymar.

Brazil did produce a late onslaught, with the imposing presence of Roberto Firmino, the surging runs of substitute Renato Augusto and a curler from Neymar, his most meaningful contribution in the 90 minutes, but the exhausted Belgians held out. “It was a great game with two teams of incredible technical qualities,” commented Brazil coach Tite. “Even with all the pain I feel now and the bitterness, I say that if you like football, you have to watch this game and you will have pleasure if you are not emotionally involved. Triangulations, transitions, saves, what a beautiful game!”

But too few of those beautiful passages came from Neymar. This never felt like Neymar’s tournament, even though Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo exited Russia early on, leaving the tournament’s star power with Neymar. Against Belgium, Brazil truly missed the suspended Casemiro, who had always ensured the team’s balance. Strangely enough, four years ago, it was another defensive player — Thiago Silva — that Brazil had missed the most in that infamous semi-final against Germany. The uncanny parallel is haunting for Neymar, because 2018 was his outstanding chance to win the ultimate prize in football.

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Updated Date: Jul 07, 2018 08:51:47 IST