Brazil Team Over-Subscribed To Idea Of Neymar As Deity

The atmosphere in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday was one of mourning even before Brazil's catastrophic defeat. The team bought too readily into Neymar being their only hero...

Last Updated: 10/07/14 at 12:36 Post Comment

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The day before Brazil played Germany, one of the greatest footballers of all time died. If you were to watch the minutes preceding kick-off free of context, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking that player was a Brazilian named Neymar Jr rather than five-time European Cup winner Alfredo di Stefano, who on Monday passed away aged 88.

As the Brazilian national anthem was played and David Luiz and Julio Cesar, heads bowed solemnly, held aloft the shirt of their absent team-mate, it was as if they were doing so in tribute to a recently deceased comrade rather than a spritely attacker whose bruised back had ruled him out for four to six weeks.

Any team is entitled to a star player, but Tuesday's events put it beyond any doubt that Brazil had elevated theirs to a position that was of help to no-one, least of all themselves. It was an absurd loss of perspective and one that is inseparable from the hammering they subsequently received.

Luiz and co's bizarre act of near-worship before kick-off wasn't the first of its kind leading up to Tuesday's game, with captain Thiago Silva saying on Saturday: "Neymar is a boy who dreamed so much of this time. We've lost our standout player. I believe one of the most important players when it comes to the World Cup."

Hulk, another of the squad's more senior figures, promised that the side would "give it all for Neymar, for the guy he is. If God helps us, we'll be champions so we can dedicate this title to him."

Even if the player in question was the lovechild of Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer, such reverential tones being directed toward any one team-mate should surely hold no place in an 11-a-side sport. Indeed, the idea of an individual holding any sort of disproportionate importance - even when it's true - is surely something that should be fought ardently against by anyone whose interests lie in that player's team succeeding in his absence.

Some token comments in this direction did emanate from the Brazil camp - talk of "the group" being stronger, and the like - and yet, once the players marched out in Belo Horizonte, it quickly became clear that these men were fixed into a mindset more suited to a mass-mourning than a World Cup semi-final.

Reverence is not the most constructive mood to take into the biggest event of your professional life, but deference is even worse. And for Brazil's teary-eyed stand-ins, deference to Neymar's long, dark shadow was clearly the order of the day. Responsibility was abdicated by every player on the field as their opponents were waved through on goal time and again during an opening half-hour in which the Brazil goalmouth was about as well-guarded as the Pentagon Papers.

There have been various attempts to analyse where Scolari got his tactics and team selection wrong on Tuesday but to embark on such tasks without taking a look at the grander context is laughable folly. The problems with Brazil on Tuesday night ran bone-deep, and resulted in collective mental collapse on an unprecedented scale. The prestige afforded to their star striker may not be the only reason behind the result, but in a team sport it certainly represents a definitive starting point, when the Neymar-shorn starting XI still included the world most expensive defender as well as players who had lifted the Champions League, Bundesliga and Premier League within the past couple of months.

Neymar's face is plastered across every spare inch of advertising space in Brazil right now. As a simple state of affairs, there's nothing wrong with this, but the striker's branding powers seem to have extended beyond simply flogging cans of fizzy pop and overpriced replica shirts: his state of wildly inflated importance has clearly been bought into his colleagues, too. In the days after Juan Zuniga's clumsy challenge in the quarter-final, there was little sign of the self-respect you might expect from such seasoned sportsmen.

Their behaviour wasn't that of elite athletes who had spent the last four years earning their place in their nation's esteemed Selecao, but more like secondaries whose presence in their national squad amounted to little more than Neymar's accomplices. If David Luiz and Julio Cesar were the little green aliens in the Pizza Planet arcade machine, then Neymar was The Claw, looming down on his team-mates from every billboard and advertising hoarding in the country.

Not since David Beckham has there been a player whose profile as a global celebrity is as wildly disproportionate to his actual talent level as Neymar today. Of course, he remains an exceptional, potentially even one-off footballer, but as it stands he lacks both the ability and pedigree of a great one. It's worth remembering, too, what the response was of esteemed team-builder Alex Ferguson when Beckham's ever-rising celebrity status became apparent: he got rid.

That's not to say Brazil should do the same with Neymar - that would patently be madness - but it is indisputable that the current hierarchy within the Brazil set-up is unhealthy for all concerned. Right now (as seen from the outside looking in) the snazzy-haired forward looks to occupy a position within his camp closer to that of Jim Jones or L Ron Hubbard than simply of his team's best goal-threat.

There's a strong argument to say that Neymar's career so far has been as much an exercise in marketing and branding as it has been an implementation of his footballing talents. On Tuesday we witnessed the dangers of Brazil's self-styled superstar in stark Technicolor: sell the idea of a one-man team too convincingly, and his team-mates might just buy it. It is, after all, the easy option.

Alex Hess - Follow him on Twitter

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