Brazil are gunning up for the World Cup in Russia. In Neymar, they have the player who can emulate and eclipse all the greats of Brazil’s past.
Wikipedia, the convenient data bank for journalists around the globe, defines correlation as follows: “Correlation is any of a broad class of statistical relationships involving dependence, though in common usage it most often refers to how close two variables are to having a linear relationship with each other.” In my opinion, one of the most absorbing ways to measure player’s value for his/her team is to study the interplay between that player’s appearances and his respective team’s success. You get the idea.
Now, without the unnecessary foreplay, allow me to switch our attention to the main subject of this article and look at the dependence between Neymar’s caps and Brazil’s success on the world’s grandest stages.
“Coincidence? I think not!”
– Bernie Kropp
Let’s begin with the second edition of the Superclásico de las Américas and the spring of 2012, when his senior international career got off to a flying start. In the first leg against the Argentine side, Neymar slotted a crucial extra-time penalty that allowed Brazil to grab a 2–1 advantage before the second leg. Two months later, at the La Bombonera, Argentina’s ‘second leg home advantage’ proved to be insufficient, as Neymar scored the decisive fifth penalty in the ‘kicks from the penalty mark’. The goal allowed Brazil to conquer its second title in the competition.
On to the big ones: 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. The tournament that put Neymar on the adult size pedestal. With the now 21-year-old tween bolstering their attack, Brazil ran riot, topping their group with ease and outsmarting Uruguay in the semi-finals. But it was the final against Spain, in which the Brazilian properly announced himself to the people who deemed the God was round. Bombing down the wing for the full 90 minutes, Brazil’s latest number 10 (almost) single-handedly destroyed the reigning world champions 3–0 at the Maracanã, thus ending the Europeans’ 29-game unbeaten streak.
Every first touch was as gentle as a lover’s goodnight kiss — as if fearing he might destroy the ball with a touch not delicate enough.
Neymar’s goal in the final acted as a testament to this sheer class. Brazil’s no. 10 ghosted around the penalty area, like an introvert at family reunions, before gracefully timing his run and meeting Oscar’s serve under a surrealistically high-pressured situation. Spain’s Álvaro Arbeloa, who lunged into a challenge later than a regional bus reaches its destination in Lapland, followed in shame and disbelief as Cafusa’s trajectory darted past the powerless Iker Casillas. The frames that followed were quite foreseeable.
The crowd erupted, Neymar spread his arms behind the Spaniard and the earth’s rotation gradually slowed down. At the end of the tournament, FIFA recognized his heroics with an imitation of that French golden sphere.
The absence emphasizes
A year after the Confederations Cup arrived the FIFA World Cup. Once again, everything seemed to be rolling just fine on the home soil. Brazil travelled undefeated through the group stage, with Neymar scoring the game-winning goals against Croatia and Cameroon (the tie against Mexico ended 0–0). In the round of 16 ties against Chile, Neymar delivered the decisive goal in the penalty shootout (again) which allowed Brazil to progress to the quarter-finals.
In the quarter-finals against Colombia, however, the winds began to tumble. The match itself ended in favour of Brazil 2–1, but the Seleção’s march was mentally disrupted 87 minutes into the game when Colombian Juan Zúñiga stabbed Neymar’s back with his knee. The defender’s reckless challenge shattered a vertebra in the Brazilian’s spine, and the Barcelona wunderkind was no longer to be seen in the festival. Brazil would not recover.
Following Neymar’s injury, Brazil had to play against Germany in the semi-finals without their talisman. And if you’re reading this, you probably recall the historical decapitation that followed. Die Mannschaft assassinated the hosts, pouring goals like Mick Jenkins pours cultural and political statements — sophisticated, yet so ruthlessly. All in all, Germany thumped in seven goals against Oscar’s lone strike. For the Brazilians, the disappointment was too much to cope with. Canarinho subsequently dropped to fourth place as Holland cruised to a relatively comfortable 3–0 victory in the third-place play-off at Estádio Nacional.
Without Neymar, Brazil had conceded ten goals in just two games, scoring only once themselves. Moreover, Junior collected Verde-Amarela’s wooden spoon of the tournament in the form of a shoe wrapped in bronze. Next tournament: the 2015 Copa América. For the third time in a row, Neymar managed to register his country’s first goal of the tournament. And with Brazil conquering its group, the men in yellow shirts prepared to play Paraguay in the quarter-finals. But then, something strange happened. On the 27th day of June, Paraguay thwarted Brazil via a penalty shootout. The same Los Guaranies, who Argentina defeated 1-6 in the following stage of the tournament.
The common factor between the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2015 Copa América? Correct. Neymar couldn’t play against Paraguay because of the ban imposed upon him by CONMEBOL.
The control group makes history
Year 2016. Copa América Centenario and Summer Olympics in Rio. The Confederação Brasileira de Futebol wanted to field their El Rey Dorado at both festivals. Their wishes, however, were not met as Barcelona demanded that Brazil should avoid overloading the enigmatic player. Therefore, Neymar was only allowed to enter the Olympic Games in Rio.
Can you still remember the formula? Can you adapt it to determine the outcome of both tournaments? I bet you will.
At the South American championships, Brazil looked as if they were desperately looking for their designated driver. Succeeding in TKO’ing only one team, Haiti, Brazil sank to third place in their respective group, behind Peru and Ecuador. Due to surprisingly inconsolable results, no place was reserved for Brazil in the knockout phase.
At the Summer Olympics, however, the yellow shirts sang along a different tune. From topping their respective group and not conceding a single goal in the knockout stage to toppling Germany in the final. And Neymar, delivering the icing on the cake, flourished under the spotlight. The 24-year-old Brazilian led the team in scoring, produced the fastest goal in Olympic football history and, as if it had been scripted in the footballing gardens above us before the match, he had the honor to smash home the fifth and decisive penalty against Germany. Since Nils Petersen had failed to surpass Weverton just seconds earlier, Neymar’s pocket brought Brazil its first Olympic men’s football gold medal.
An astonishing dependency kept going.
Next round: World Cup in Russia
Reaching out to ridiculous lengths, Neymar’s presence proved to be decisive in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers as well, as Brazil was the first country to secure its place in 2018 World Cup.
With the 2018 FIFA World Cup creeping closer and closer, we can only wonder if Neymar’s magical effect can inspire Canarinho to their mythological sixth world championship. Is it even possible? So far it has been. When El Rey Dorado has been unleashed, the results of Verde-Amarela have been nothing short of flawless.
“Where prayer, amulets and incantations work it is only a manifestation of the patient’s belief.”
Under the watchful eye of the double-headed eagle, Brazil’s absurd squad is undoubtedly looking to count on their talisman. A formula they have utilized over and over again throughout the course of their history. After all, for the lion’s share of Brazilian greats, there have been career-defining World Cup tournaments. A pinnacle where they personified the success of the entire squad. Whereas Ronaldo Nazário experienced it in 2002, Garrincha had his triumph in 1962. And twenty-four years earlier, a mythological man known as the “Black Diamond”, Leônidas da Silva, had painted seven goals in the 1938 World Cup finals, including a hat-trick against Poland — despite losing his boots in the mud around the 100-minute mark. Do I even need to mention Pelé, an “official national treasure”?
It might seem unfair to lay the weight of a nation on Neymar’s 26-year-old frail shoulders, but that’s the Brazilian way. That’s how they always do. República Federativa do Brasil is a fertile home to cult of personality. And now with Tite pulling the strings behind the scenes for the Seleção’s and Neymar at the peak of his physical powers, the Brazilian people are daring to dream again.
Daring to dream of Neymar delivering that little gold trophy. For them.