Neil Humphreys: It's not just about you, Neymar
Brazilian superstar can share the attacking burden this time
BRAZIL v CROATIA
(Sunday, 10pm, Anfield)
Four years ago, the trip to Brazil felt like a surreal journey into a Lewis Carroll fantasy. It was Neymar in Wonderland.
He ruled the World Cup at home. He beamed down from highway billboards. He popped up on airport posters. He emerged from Copacabana Beach in countless sand sculptures.
Neymar was omnipresent across Brazil and omnipotent in the eyes of Brazilians. He was going to win the World Cup with a rubbish team.
But he didn't. Of course he didn't. He was a 22-year-old rose among prickly thorns like Hulk and Fred.
The World Cup was all about Neymar, so Neymar tried to be all over the World Cup. He tried too hard. He got injured. Brazil's dream was broken.
Neymar is injured again, but the relationship between the prodigious talent and his team-mates has changed beyond all recognition.
In this World Cup, it's not about you, Neymar, which may be bad news for the incorrigible narcissist, but it's great news for the recovering footballer.
Brazil kick off their friendlies against Croatia on Sunday and Neymar should feature, despite being out with a fractured foot since February.
By his own admission, he's not at 100 per cent. But, this time around, it doesn't entirely matter. Brazil have options.
In Russia, Neymar will be a slightly superior first among near equals. The swaggering maverick who swopped Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain so he could be numero uno might not like this arrangement.
But the Brazilians certainly should. The Selecao are no longer a scruffy bunch of journeymen, creaking forwards, a few familiar faces and an emerging superstar.
They are a balanced side with the kind of attacking diversity that once characterised the finest Brazil teams. Their squad depth is the envy of the world.
Roberto Firmino played in a Champions League final with Liverpool, but may not start at the World Cup.
Fernandinho faces a battle for selection, despite playing a pivotal midfield role in the most one-sided title race the English Premier League has ever seen. Juventus' Douglas Costa is not a guaranteed starter either.
Even by the Selecao's lofty standards, their squad metamorphosis, in just four years, is something to behold.
In that era-defining 7-1 loss to Germany, Brazil's wobbly line-up included Julio Cesar, Bernard, Hulk and Fred.
For purposes of comparison, Ederson, Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus may occupy those positions.
Even Ederson, so wonderful as a keeper-sweeper for Manchester City, faces stiff competition from the excellent Alisson, currently at Roma, but desperately wanted at Liverpool.
When Neymar was booted in the back during the 2014 quarter-final against Colombia, Brazil's hopes went down with him. The umbilical cord between the cocky kid from Sao Paulo and his country's expectations was brutally severed.
The connection was as desperate as it was unhealthy, placing far too much pressure on an overworked youngster toiling in an average team.
Neymar's still the main man, chipping in with 14 goals and assists during the qualifying campaign. But he's no longer the only man.
Once the defensive Dunga was sacked, Tite brought balance to the line-up and healed a fractured dressing room. His attack-minded philosophy encouraged others to support Neymar.
Brazil's coach has managed to blend the distinct qualities of Casemiro, Paulinho, Willian, Coutinho, Neymar and Gabriel Jesus to fashion the most ferocious front six at the World Cup.
Finally, the odds are in Neymar's favour. He's one of many mavericks now.
His recovery has been carefully managed for months and should continue against Croatia. The PSG star isn't expected to complete the game, but his right foot needs a thorough workout.
In a vastly improved line-up, he has an opportunity to make amends.
Like the wounded Brazilians after that Teutonic thrashing four years ago, Neymar needs a successful World Cup, but for different reasons.
At 26, he was expected to own this tournament.
He might have carried the hosts in 2014, but Brazil was a warm-up. Russia was always going to be the main event, the one where the boy became a man, skipping away from the long shadows of Messi and Ronaldo.
He's already made a dash for individual freedom once. It didn't quite come off. He rejected the chance of one day becoming the king of the Nou Camp and became the Prince of Paris instead.
It was a pyrrhic victory. He wears the crown of a smaller dynasty.
If Neymar wants real international respect, he's got to reign in Russia.
Catch Neil Humphreys as he gives his satirical take on life and football every Saturday, from 10am to noon, on Money FM 89.3.
Danilo: Neymar getting sharper
Brazil star Neymar is getting fitter every day as the striker recovers from a broken foot, his teammate Danilo said from their pre-World Cup training camp in London yesterday.
"He's getting better every day, getting faster, more agile and more difficult to defend against," said Danilo.
"He's so fast you wouldn't know whether to go left, right, forwards or backwards,"Danilo added of Neymar's trickery.
"We hope he'll be 100 per cent ready or as ready as is possible."- AFP