Rodrygo needs to deliver more for Brazil to avoid Mbappe ‘victim’ status

Ryan Baldi
Rodrygo struggled for Brazil
Rodrygo struggled for Brazil

There’s more at stake this summer for Brazil striker Rodrygo than the chance to lead his nation to a tenth Copa America title.

The 23-year-old was a key figure in a Champions League and La Liga double for Real Madrid last season and has been a regular starter for Brazil for three years. Yet at 23 and having comfortably crossed many of the career checkpoints demanded of a rising superstar, he finds himself approaching something of a fork in the road.

The signings of Kylian Mbappe and teenage Brazilian sensation Endrick have led to speculation that Rodrygo could be the odd man out at the Bernabeu before the start of next season. Or the ‘main victim’.

He scored 17 goals and provided nine assists for Carlo Ancelotti’s all-conquering side last term and his positional malleability and intelligent interplay were key factors in Jude Bellingham being able to integrate and thrive after arriving from Borussia Dortmund. Carlo Ancelotti is clearly a fan, too, having labelled him “special” in 2022 and naming him the third-best player in the world back in February.

But while 18-year-old Endrick will likely be eased gradually into the Madrid line-up over the course of the next few seasons, Mbappe has not come to warm the bench. Someone from the side that secured a record-extending 15th European crown for the club will have to give way. It’s unlikely to be either of the Ballon d’Or frontrunners Vinicius Junior and Bellingham. Which leaves Rodrygo in the position of having to justify his place while rumours abound of imminent €100 million-plus bids for his services from Manchester City and Liverpool.

It’s not just at club level that Rodrygo finds himself with plenty to prove, either. With Neymar absent from the Copa America as he continues to recover from a cruciate ligament tear, it is Rodrygo – not Madrid colleague Vinicius – who has been handed the prized No.10 shirt for the Selecao.

Few jerseys carry as much historical weight as Brazil’s No.10; its occupants instantly join a lineage that included the likes of Pele, Zico, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka. And while Rodrygo has been quick to humbly point out that the shirt is merely on loan from Neymar, the fact he will wear it in the United States this month shows the faith manager Dorival Junior has in him to lead a young Brazilian frontline into a new, post-Neymar era. Neymar himself even singled out Rodrygo as the player around whom Brazil’s fortunes will pivot at the Copa America.

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“Brazil’s key player? For me I think it is Rodrygo, because everyone knows how Vini will play, but Rodrygo, I think, is very different,” he said. “He is a star and the number 10 shirt will definitely bring him a lot of luck.”

With so much on the line, then, a goalless draw against Costa Rica in Brazil’s opening group-stage game was hardly an ideal start to Rodrygo’s summer of scrutiny.

The Madrid star was far from the Selecao’s most disappointing performer in the shock stalemate at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium. He created two chances for team-mates – including a magnificent lofted pass to play Raphinha through on goal in the first half – and it was his flick-on that set up a Marquinhos goal that was controversially deemed offside by VAR.

Newcastle’s Bruno Guimaraes was ineffective throughout and skied a late chance. And Vinicius was anonymous to the point that – after producing zero shots and, uncharacteristically, no successful dribbles – he was hooked for Endrick after 70 minutes.

Yet with so much of Brazil’s attacking play funnelled towards and through Rodrygo, there was little to show for it at the end of the 90 minutes. The stand-in No.10 rattled off six shots, but none landed on target. Faced with a resolute Costa Rican back five, he showed flashes of his breath-taking ability to wriggle out of tight spaces, but he was too easily and too often coaxed into playing backwards when his side needed a creative spark.

Manchester City-bound winger Savio came on for the final 20 minutes and accomplished more in his truncated playing time than the attacking starters, completing six take-ons and setting up Guimaraes’ fluffed chance for a late winner.

Before the Costa Rica game, Rodrygo shrugged off the notion that he is under pressure at club level following Mbappe’s signing.

“For me it’s a pleasure to play with Mbappe, I always made it very clear,” he said. “He’s going to help our team a lot, he’s going to help make it even stronger than it already is.

“For me it’s always a pleasure, but now is not the time to divert the focus, I want to be focused on the national team. Mbappe is also playing in the [European] Championship with his national team and I want to be focused here.”

Despite his protestations, though, the player who has already achieved so much in his young career goes into Brazil’s second Copa America fixture, against Paraguay on Friday, no closer to answering the questions that hang over his summer.