Brazil: Another unexpected exit as Neymar era ebbs towards its close

ADD little Croatia to the list that includes Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and France. Every time Brazil come up against a decent European side in the knockout stages, they struggle. Since they last won the World Cup, Brazil have never won a KO game against a European nation. Since then, they have been humiliated in their own turf by 7-1 against Germany and thrown away leads against the Dutch and Croatians, as well as losing to the unfulfilled Belgian golden generation. Each time, defeat has been accompanied by tears of disbelief, national mourning and forensic analysis of why the most successful World Cup country falls short of enormous expectation so often.

Brazil was anticipating the so-called “Hexa”, a sixth World Cup triumph. The public was confident, perhaps too confident – a poll by Apoema suggested 71% of the Brazilian people thought they would win in Qatar – and the squad certainly had the look of a multi-talented unit that epitomised some of the finer qualities of their football. And then there was a more mature, more focused Neymar, playing in his third World Cup. The competition was also seen as a distraction from the recent election in which the Seleçaõ’s sacred yellow shirt was adopted by some right wing groups. The football could return the shirt to its rightful place as the symbol of a nation’s sporting heritage.

Brazil versus Europe, 2006 to 2022

Group games7520102
KO games6015416

+Includes 1-1 draw with Croatia 2022, lost on penalties

Brazil, obviously, qualify with ease for each World Cup and have lost just five times in 71 CONMEBOL qualifying games. Each time they make it through, they are among the favourites and most eagerly awaited teams in the finals. The current squad looked like the strongest in some years, without being full of ball-juggling stars. Brazil are no longer a team of mystery that comes out of hiding every four years, their 2022 squad includes 22 players who ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues, including 12 from the English Premier. Only three came from the Brazilian domestic league.

Highs and lows in Brazilian World Cup history

  1950 runners-up
195828 years since 1930 – Winners 
19624 years on – Winners 
  1966 Group exit
19708 years on – Winners 
  1982 Defeat in second stage
199424 years on – Winners 
  1998 finalists
20028 years on – Winners 
  2014 Semi-final humiliation
202624 years since last triumph 

Neymar continued to attract most attention, but he is no longer the 22 year-old wonder boy waiting to assume the role of world’s best player. He has been usurped by his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappé and by rising stars like Erling Haaland of Manchester City. His time has gone as a potential Balon d’Or winner, a trophy he coveted when he arrived in Paris. He is, of course, still capable of sheer brilliance, but he has been somewhat injury-prone and he doesn’t appear enough. He has played, for various reasons, barely 50% of possible Ligue 1 games since he joined PSG. While he was the centre of everything when he moved to France, he now seems like a bit-part actor in a drama that still hasn’t reached a climax. PSG want the UEFA Champions League but there are rumblings that Qatar may be willing to loosen their grip on the club now that the World Cup has arrived and almost gone. Neymar was arguably part of the Qatari plan and a mere € 222 million was paid to take him to PSG.

Brazil rely heavily on Neymar and the goal against Croatia showed why, but if they are who they believe they are, they shouldn’t have to pin their hopes on one player. If they become so dependent on one shirt, it is easy to render that player harmless by constantly fouling him. Neymar has always been a target of cynicism, even if his critics say he brings a theatrical touch to every tackle. “Stop Neymar and you stop Brazil,” is undoubtedly on the minds of every coach that goes into battle against Brazil.

Their World Cup ended at the quarter-final stage for the fourth time in five World Cups, by the time their next opportunity comes around, in 2026, they will have gone the same length of time they endured between 1970 and 1994. The chances are, Neymar won’t be there in 2026, he will be 34 years old and a fresh generation of players will have emerged, which also means a new prodigy will have the same weight placed on his shoulders to carry the legend (and myth) of Brazilian football. Neymar is destined to never have HIS World Cup to provide the gilding on his career. Pelé, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane had theirs, even if, in Cruyff’s case, it ended in defeat. Neymar has never completed a World Cup as its star player – 2014 was supposed to be his time, but he was injured and Brazil capitulated awfully in that shocking semi-final against the Germans.

Even in defeat against the underrated Croatians, Neymar courted controversy. Amid the tears – lots of them – was the glaring fact that Neymar had not taken a penalty in the shoot-out, that he was undoubtedly waiting for kick number five to claim the glory. In fact, Brazil’s spot-kicks were so bad they didn’t reach the fifth. But as the talisman of his national team, why didn’t he take the first, confidence-inducing kick to provide inspiration to his team? Perhaps the sobbing represented tears of regret or guilt?

And so, Brazil search their souls once more and add Doha to their list of emotional football disasters. Sooner or later, they may realise that despite their craving for victory in a sport that helps define the Brazilian character, so do their opponents. When 2026 comes around, the pressure cooker will be building up steam once more.

Neymar: The sun king loses his shine

“What can you do with a general, when he stops being a general?”, was a song from that cheesy old film, White Christmas, but the football world is starting to ask that same question of Neymar, who may be the most unwanted gift of the close season.

Paris Saint-Germain, according to media reports, have told the Brazilian to search for a new club, but bizarrely, if he doesn’t go elsewhere, his contract has a clause that will earn him an extension on his current deal that will keep him with PSG until his mid-30s.

Almost without anyone noticing, Neymar was 30 in February and no longer a vision of what lies ahead. In short, we have seen his peak and it didn’t quite match up to expectations. You cannot blame PSG for that, because Zlatan Ibrahimovic was served well by a few years in Ligue 1 and Kylian Mbappé is still flourishing as a free-scoring young player. Neymar went to Paris to become a superstar, to win personal and team honours of the highest order and at the same time, he would be the centrepiece of the Brazilian national team and perhaps win a World Cup or two.

With PSG, he’s won four Ligue 1 titles and three Coupe de France finals. He’s reached the UEFA Champions League final, losing to Bayern Munich, but he’s been part of a PSG side that loses composure when it truly matters. PSG can win Ligue 1 at a canter, with or without Neymar – he’s played 92 out of a possible 179 league games in his time in Paris, a very expensive 51%.

He was supposed to be the club’s talisman, a figure to lead them to a higher level of glory. Nothing much actually changed: in the five years pre-Neymar, PSG won 11 major trophies and reached four quarter-finals in the Champions League. In the five Neymar seasons, they’ve won nine major trophies, reached a Champions League final, one semi-final and three times failed to go beyond the last 16.

PSG’s strategy around team managers and acquiring talent has to be questioned, from the soft power play of signing Neymar in the first place, to filling a team with huge egos and creating a star culture that requires no end of stroking and reassuring. Neymar appears to have been treated, to some extent, like a prize ballerina, with PSG adopting a softly-softly approach whenever he steps out of line. Some managers have not appreciated this velvet-gloved player discipline.

But then, when you’re paying so much money out to a player, vast quantities of cotton wool are certainly needed. Already he earns around € 90 million a year and if his current deal is extended, he will be earning even more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. PSG have slipped up here, for if they have decided he is no longer aligned to their plans, then why did they give him a lucrative deal back in December that expires in 2025? And then why on earth include a clause that makes any divorce even more messy? Sometimes, football really does gets the people it deserves.

But who will take him of PSG’s hands? It has taken them a long time to realise the Neymar experiment has not been a success. His fitness has been suspect, his contribution inconsistent and occasionally, he gets himself into scrapes. Hence, he has lived in the shadow of the big two, CR7 and Messi, who are fitter, more consistent and less distracted by fast-living. He has also missed out on the prize he once craved, the Ballon d’Or, the closest he ever got to winning was in 2013 and 2015 when he finished third in the voting as a Barcelona player. He was ranked 16th in 2021 after two years without a glimpse of him.

With such a contract and a diminishing reputation, who would take him on? Newcastle United have been mentioned, unsurprisingly given they are in the same position PSG were in a decade ago. They yearn for credibility and a statement signing. Chelsea may have thrown their hat in the ring, but they would be a foolish and extravagant move. It would seem unlikely that Barcelona and Real Madrid would go for him, particularly as PSG were finessed-out of signing Mbappé by the latter. Manchester City could afford him, but would Neymar fit into a system-driven team coached by Pep Guardiola? And what of Manchester United, desperate to climb out of their current malaise, but would another ageing star merely underline how wretched they have become?

PSG have a problem and it is nearly as big as Neymar’s dilemma. Nobody is going to spare much sympathy for either party, but if there is a club that can afford to take a loss on the chin, it is surely PSG. As for Neymar, he’s got a World Cup to prepare for. He needs a club and he needs football at the highest possible level. He’s running out of options because he is seen as representing football’s era of hubris.

Yet out of this mess could be a lesson for clubs. The risk of over-paying a player who stops being an asset and becomes a liability is something they have to be aware of. We may have seen the best of Neymar, albeit fleetingly, but his story should serve as a warning for any club that pushes the boundaries so far to gain a competitive edge. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work.