Neymar does not need to do it all for Brazil to succeed
ST. PETERSBURG -- Sometimes, it's good to be noticed. Your grandmother might have told you that the "squeaky wheel gets the grease," or whatever the equivalent maxim might be.
Other times, though, it might be worth keeping a lower profile; at least, as low as the follicular stylings of Nariko, the GOAT of World Cup hairdressers allow. Because there is something to be said for doing the silent-assassin thing or, at least, letting your gifted teammates carry some of the load.
The Brazilian FA (CBF) chose the former approach in the aftermath of their opening-game draw with Switzerland last Sunday. Their media department made sure everybody knew that Neymar had been fouled no fewer than 10 times -- the most in a World Cup game since Alan Shearer 20 years ago -- and, in the training sessions that followed, cameras immortalized the Paris Saint-Germain star limping off early, grimacing and wincing.
As communications strategies go, it was fairly transparent: Here was one of the stars of the World Cup, hacked to shreds by the vicious Swiss. What will FIFA do about it? Surely the stars must be protected and, with it, the spectacle and integrity of the game?
It's classic get-in-the-head-of-the-referees stuff and, back in the day, it would have made sense. After all, it was only a decade ago that FIFA's referees' committee -- the folks who appoint and assess match officials -- was made up of run-of-the-mill football administrators instead of retired referees. (Indeed, for many years the deputy chairman was a guy named Ricardo Teixeira, who was also head of the CBF and was indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice in the FIFA scandal.)
These days, it's a different story, and this kind of lobbying, thankfully, tends to fall on deaf ears. Beside, those 10 fouls suffered by Neymar were actually called by Mexico's Cesar Ramos. He could have shown a few more cards, perhaps, but the trend -- not just at this top level -- has been for officials to assert authority, where possible (and where the Laws of the Game allow) without bookings.
So perhaps Neymar and Brazil boss Tite might want to rethink things. In particular, the star's role itself. More than half the fouls he suffered occurred in midfield and usually involved him turning into traffic and running at opponents.
Some folks -- like a few of my colleagues on the ESPN FC show -- might add that Neymar engaged in showboating at times, the sort of which a no-nonsense guy like Valon Behrami might not appreciate. You might or might not agree, but it certainly felt as if Behrami and others added a little bit of mustard to their tackles as a result.
Either way, there's a time and a place to take on opponents, and it generally isn't in the middle of the park. It's basic risk-and-reward stuff: Your risk is losing the ball or getting a big boot and your reward is still being 40 yards away from goal with half-a-dozen opponents to beat.
In other words, it's generally not worth it. Add in the fact that, at least against Switzerland, Neymar tended to take on players either from a standstill or while trotting around and there's another factor: Even when you do beat someone, you're not traveling at pace, and that means opponents have time to recover.
Most of all, if you play like that, you're basically putting a giant bull's-eye on your back. In that sense, he could maybe take his cue from the two guys he is supposed to eventually replace as best in the world. Cristiano Ronaldo suffered 10 fouls, but that was over two matches against Spain and Morocco. Lionel Messi, meanwhile, was fouled just three times apiece by Iceland and Croatia.
If those guys, who are arguably more important to their teams than Neymar is to his (meaning there is more of an incentive -- if you're of a cynical bent -- to take them out) and equally capable of showboating and taking on opponents, manage to restrain themselves and preserve their bodies, why can't Neymar?
The odd thing is that, while we've seen glimpses of this behavior at PSG, Neymar has generally been more functional with the Selecao, at least during Tite's tenure. The take-ons happen where they should happen -- in the final third -- and he was more of an important cog in a machine than the whole freaking show.
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Since coming back from injury, however, he has looked as if he's reverting to the 2014 version, the one burdened with carrying the hopes of a nation on his back. Then it was somewhat understandable: He was the superstar of an attacking corps that included Bernard, Oscar, Fred and Jo.
Without wishing to be overly disrespectful, it is not quite the same as being able to count, as he can now, on some combination of Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Willian. (Willian was around in 2014, too, but the only game he started was the irrelevance known as the third-place playoff.)
In other words, Neymar does not need to do it all on his own, certainly not in the group stage against teams like Switzerland or Friday's opponent, Costa Rica. There's a time for heroics and there's a time to trust your teammates and, right now, it's the latter. He can be just as valuable -- if not more so -- playing his position in an orthodox way, without trying to be Diego Maradona of 1986 vintage.
Tite's assistant Sylvinho hinted that Brazil might be best served attacking more down the left, which is home to Willian and Marcelo, two guys who can certainly make things happen and who were somewhat underutilized against the Swiss.
The message is simple. There might come a time when Neymar needs to don his Superman cape, but that time is not now. Get through to the knockout round, don't put your body on the line when it's not necessary and remember that you are part of a team, not the whole team.
That is what got Brazil to sail so brilliantly through CONMEBOL qualifying, and that is what makes them one of the favorites in this World Cup.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.