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OLIVER HOLT: They looked like favourites with star man Neymar – Brazil will desperately hope he’s OK

Oliver Holt: Brazil showed they are the favorites for a reason against Serbia but they are desperately hoping Neymar is okay… If he can lead his country to glory in the World Cup, he may ascend to the pantheon of footballing greats

  • Neymar is still the man who can make the difference in a team full of stars
  • A knee in his back ruined his hopes of home World Cup glory
  • He received much harsher treatment in the opening World Cup match against Serbia
  • The Brazil star was hacked and his shirt was literally ripped from his back
  • Neymar was taken off the field after turning his right ankle after another heavy challenge
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A few months ago, Zico, one of the greatest heroes of Brazilian football and one of its greatest players, was sitting in an upstairs office in his academy in Recreio on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, talking about the World Cup in Qatar.

“We have a great opportunity,” he said. “We have a good squad and the youngsters – Viennese, Anthony and Rafinha – are our great hope.”

He did not mention Neymar. Not until it was claimed anyway. Many analysts of the Brazilian team like this. Neymar is second only to Pele in goals scored for his country, yet Brazilians struggle to embrace him wholeheartedly.

Neymar is still the man who can make the difference in a star-studded Brazilian team

So when I asked Zico if he was a fan of Neymar, the current number 10 in the national team, the shining crown jewel of this Brazilian team trying to win the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, he looked at me with something between a grimace and a smile. He said, “From football, yes.”

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Zico is a charming and diplomatic guy, so he left the rest unsaid. But if Brazilians have struggled to carry Neymar into their hearts in the same way they idolized Zico, Ronaldo and other contemporary heroes, it is because he is still seen as a passionate person off the field.

He is very talented, but the most he has achieved for his country is the Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016. This tournament in Qatar represents his best chance to rectify that.

Neymar’s name was still revered when it was read on Thursday night before Brazil’s 2-0 opening match win over Serbia. In a team of all talents, the favorite to win the tournament, Neymar is still the man who can make the difference.

His chances of winning the World Cup on home soil were ruined eight years ago when he was brutally banished from the tournament. A knee in his back in Brazil’s match against Colombia broke one of his vertebrae and forced him to miss the 7-1 humiliation against Germany in the semi-finals.

Neymar was ruthlessly hacked by Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelje in the second half

Neymar was ruthlessly hacked by Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelje in the second half

Thursday night, he was in the midst of another injury scare.

He had an early taste of the cruelty when Philip Mladenovic ripped his shirt off his back for a few minutes. At the start of the second half, he was attacked mercilessly by Nemanja Gudelje running into the Serbian defence. By the halfway point, he was the most fouled player in the tournament to date.

Then, late in the game, he turned his right ankle after another heavy challenge. He was substituted and when he took off his ankle boot it looked really swollen. After the match, Brazil’s national team doctor said he had “trauma” to his ankle. He said they will have to wait 24 to 48 hours before a full assessment is possible.

Brazil desperately hopes that he will be fine. Even with Vinicius Jnr dancing on the left, Rafinha blazing on the right, and Richarlison pulling defenders in all directions down the centre, Neymar was still the star of the show on Thursday night, at least until the Spurs forward’s stunning second goal.

Neymar turned his right ankle after another heavy challenge during the second half

Neymar turned his right ankle after another heavy challenge during the second half

Brazil are the favorites for a reason, they looked like the favorites and if they win this World Cup and if he is fit to play for the rest of their campaign, Neymar will be their captain. This is already clear.

It was his silverware skills that had Brazil craving a breakthrough after just an hour. He twisted one way and then the other in the box, Vinicius slammed in a shot and Richarlison crunched the rebound.

Richarlison scored it but Neymar inspired it. With age the light that shines from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo dims, Neymar still looks like a player in his prime.

He has never been in the same category as Messi, now his PSG teammate, Ronaldo, or even another PSG teammate, Kylian Mbappe. But if he can lead Brazil to a World Cup win here, Neymar could step up into the game’s pantheon of greats.

Neymar's ankle was already swollen when he took off his shoes after being substituted

Neymar’s ankle was already swollen when he took off his shoes after being substituted

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