Brazilian soccer fans witnessed a scene last week that has become all too familiar. Neymar gets tackled and falls to the ground. He takes a bit too long to get up. The 27-year-old’s face is contorted with pain. Tears roll down his face while the medical staff carries him off the field.
Brazil went on to beat Qatar without Neymar, but in the early morning hours shortly after the friendly, the Brazilian soccer federation wasted no time releasing a statement. Neymar has been ruled out of the Copa America due to a ruptured ankle ligament. No wait and see; No rush to make it back in time for a possible final; Simply, no Neymar.
Brazil is set to host the Copa America in a matter of days. The last time the Selecao hosted a major international tournament, things did not go so well. Specifically, it ended in a 7-1 thrashing by Germany in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup, one of the most surprising results in sports history and one of the most embarrassing moments in Brazilian soccer history.
Brazil is not going to rectify that score anytime soon, if ever. However, the Brazilian national team is due for some sort of vindication.
The team that was once a beacon of joy and attractive soccer has had something of a fall from grace. Apart from an Olympic gold medal on home soil in 2016, Brazil has not won a major title since 2007, when they last lifted the Copa America. The last time Brazil won a World Cup title was in 2002. Brazil’s current starting striker, Gabriel Jesus, was five years old.
For a Brazilian roster that hopes to end that decade-plus Copa America drought, the news of Neymar’s injury is certainly a heavy blow. Let’s not forget that Neymar is arguably the third best player in the world when healthy and has played a huge part in the team’s success of the past few years.
However, Neymar’s absence from this Copa America may benefit all parties involved, including Neymar himself.
Obviously, an injury is never good news for a professional athlete, much less one who has gone through as many health setbacks in recent years as Neymar. However, this sabbatical, albeit a mandatory one, may be just what the doctor ordered.
Ahead of Wednesday’s friendly, Neymar himself admitted (via Instagram) that this would prove to be one of the most difficult matches of his career. The PSG star was referring to the mental space he was in due to rape allegations that had been leveled against him on June 1st. The allegation is still under investigation, including an additional case spinning off from Neymar revealing private messages and intimate photos of the accuser on Instagram while trying to defend himself.
The soccer pitch is obviously not the only place Neymar’s mind would be at these days.
One could argue that Neymar should have been deemed unfit to participate in the Copa America before he suffered the injury. Consider the hypothetical situation where Neymar didn’t get injured: Tite and the entire team would be subjected to questions about Neymar’s rape investigation. Valuable attention to defending home soil would be diverted into headlines off the field.
Also keep in mind that Neymar is not necessarily Brazil’s favorite son. Last year’s World Cup antics and a confrontational history with the Brazilian press mean the PSG star was already not on fans’ good side before his latest controversy.
All of that will be avoided now. Sure, there will still be some questions about Neymar – that’s the nature of his fame and the Brazilian press – but for the most part the remaining 23 players on Tite’s roster will be able to properly focus on the task at hand. And even without Neymar it’s a roster which is still arguably the most complete overall and can still very well make a run for the Copa America final.
Chelsea’s Willian has been named as Neymar’s replacement. The winger has not gotten much playing time under Tite recently but has proven to be a key ingredient to Chelsea’s success over the past two seasons. The Brazilian soccer federation says Willian – a subdued and quiet character – will also inherit the number 10 jersey, which reinforces the notion that this Brazil team will hope evade headlines and distractions off the pitch.
Up top, Brazil still have plenty players who can haunt opposing defenders. Beginning with one of 2019’s breakout players, David Neres, who is set to play in his first major tournament with the Brazilian national team. Then there’s the extremely talented Everton of Gremio. If you have been paying attention to the Copa Libertadores, you know that he’s capable of taking any game into his own hands.
There are also more established stars with plenty to prove in a Brazil jersey such as Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. To top it off, there’s the striker’s striker, Richarlison.
Brazil’s midfield is comprised of proper generals, the likes of Casemiro, Fernandinho or Allan. Barcelona’s Arthur and Milan’s Lucas Paqueta are options for ball possession and control.
The Selecao back four is well-equipped as well. Take your pick with whom you’d like to start at center back: Recent Real Madrid signing Eder Militao, proven veterans like Thiago Silva and Miranda or one of PSG’s central figures, Marquinhos. On the flanks you have a generational right back in Dani Alves plus the very capable Filipe Luis and Alex Sandro. Corinthians’ Fagner rounds out the options at full back.
Between the pipes, Brazil will likely rely on recent UEFA Champions League winner Alisson. Should he still be recovering from his Liverpool festivities, Tite can count on two-time Premier League champion, Ederson. Should he be needed, the FIFA Club World Cup champion Cassio is third in line.
In their first match since Neymar’s injury, and their final tune-up before the Copa America, Brazil hung a 7-0 score line on a weak Honduras side. Not exactly an exorcism for that 7-1 loss, but at least a reminder that there is still plenty of attacking power in this Selecao squad.
While Neymar’s absence is less than ideal and certainly not according to plan, it is no excuse for this Brazil team to do anything but compete in the final on July 7 at the Maracanã. Brazil has never lost a Copa America hosted in Brazil. The coaching staff knows this. The players know this. If they do not, the fans will be sure to remind them.