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When their star player fell to the ground screaming in pain and putting his arm behind his back, a whole nation breathed a sigh of relief and feared the worst.
Neymar was Brazil’s talisman, the one who would lead the national team to glory at the 2014 World Cup on home soil, but after falling on his back while challenging for the ball with Colombian Juan Zuniga, the then 22-year-old was twisted broken and he was out of the tournament.
Brazil won the game and reached the semi-finals, but lost there humiliatingly 7-1 to Germany. Four years ago they were eliminated by Belgium in the quarter-finals.
Although Neymar is now 30 years old he is in one of the best form of his career and there is real hope that this could be his and Brazil’s year.
Ever since Neymar first burst onto the scene as an explosive youngster for Santos in 2009, there was an expectation that he would go on to become a huge star for club and country.
The striker can be proud of his past achievements. He is the most expensive footballer in history. He scored 105 goals in 186 games for Barcelona and 115 in 163 games for Paris St-Germain. And he’s Brazil’s second-highest goalscorer with 75 goals, behind only Pele.
However, he has not yet been able to show his best at a World Cup. While an injury cruelly deprived him of a possible fairy tale on home soil in 2014, he was part of a Brazilian team that underperformed in Russia four years later, despite scoring victories against Costa Rica and Mexico.
Neymar has been part of the national team for 12 years but his only major achievements with his country are the 2013 Confederations Cup and Olympic gold in Rio 2016. He missed the 2019 Copa America, which Brazil won, through injury.
Years of anticipation and limited major success seemed to be taking their toll when he announced last year that the 2022 World Cup would be his last.
“I see it as my last because I don’t know if I still have the strength to deal with football,” he said in the DAZN documentary “Neymar Jr. and the Line of Kings”.
“I will do everything to show up well, do everything to win with my country, to achieve my biggest dream since I was little. And I hope I can make it happen.”
Get in shape at the right time
Neymar’s stats are all the more impressive given that he was sidelined for a long time during his career due to injury.
As of January this year, he had missed almost 100 games for PSG since joining them in 2017. during a supposedly frosty relationship with team-mate Kylian Mbappe meant the French side appeared ready to sever ties with Neymar in the summer and he has been linked with other moves.
“We know there was tension between the two,” Raphael Jucobin, editor of Get French Football News, told BBC Sport.
“It seems Neymar took that personally and he wanted to show this season that he deserves a place at PSG and is the player they bought for £200m.
“He’s really showing that this season. It’s been his best season so far, not only in terms of goals but also in terms of attitude.”
Neymar had previously frustrated the PSG hierarchy by once being late for the start of pre-season, but this summer he ended his vacation early to start preparations for the new season.
The result of that focus and dedication was 11 goals and nine assists in 14 Ligue 1 games.
“He has more maturity, but it’s something more than that. He has something to prove,” added Jucobin.
“The coach has also found a really good tactical formation to get the best out of him.”
Brazil coach Tite is certainly happy with the form Neymar has arrived at the World Cup, saying: “He’s flying. It’s the result of all his preparation.”
Pele’s record in Neymar’s sights
As well as hoping to lead Brazil to a record-extending sixth World Cup, Neymar is also on the cusp of history.
He needs just three goals to surpass Pele, who is Brazil’s all-time leading scorer with 77 Fifa-registered goals.
It’s a goal Neymar is dying to beat, he told French football program Telefoot last month: “I hope I can get past him. I’ll talk to my team-mates about it and tell them to help me score a goal to achieve.” finally arrive.”
What might also help Neymar is that unlike in 2014 and 2018, a nation’s hopes don’t rest almost entirely on his shoulders.
Brazil have prioritized attacking for the World Cup in Qatar, picking up nine strikers in their squad.
“Brazil are not dependent on Neymar, especially this year because there are several players like Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta,” said Cafu, the captain for their last World Cup win in 2002.
“These players are also capable of winning the Cup for Brazil and this year the team is very different. Four years ago it was all Neymar.”
Freed from the burden of expectations, this could be the year Neymar delivers to Brazil at a World Cup.
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