This World Cup is setting up as either a treatise or a coronation for Lionel Messi. He recently collected his first major trophy with Argentina — 2021’s Copa America — but still needs the World Cup to stand on the same pedestal as Diego Maradona in most’s eyes. He’s coming to Qatar with unquestionably the best team around him that he’s ever had. He may be getting old, but can still turn a match with a simple twist or feint, just maybe not quite as often. It feels like this is Messi at the gates, waiting for St. Peter to grant him access to the most exclusive VIP room. It is one last checkmark to truly walk with the gods.
So why is it any different for Neymar, who still is in his prime?
The situation at home is no different. Nothing but the trophy will do for Brazil every tournament, which is the same in Argentina. He is unquestionably the face of the biggest international team in the world. He has been for quite some time. The team around him hasn’t always been up to the standard that he constantly lives on. But when things have gone pear-shaped, Neymar has been no less in the firing line than Messi.
There are some differences. One, Brazil has seen what the team looks like without him, both good and bad. In 2014, Neymar was knocked out of the World Cup in the quarters. They lost 7-1 in the next game. In 2019’s Copa America, Neymar missed the tournament through injury. Brazil won it at home at a canter. Neymar returned for the 2021 edition. They lost…to Argentina…at home…in the final. There is no bigger horror to the Brazil national team.
Maybe the difference is that Neymar is always linked to Messi, but not the other way around. Much like Bono has a Jesus complex, but Jesus… Anyway, Messi is the true legend, perhaps the greatest ever, who quite simply has changed the game. Neymar is the clearly, supremely talented star, but hasn’t won anything of note without Messi, so goes the line. Kind of an insult to France and their league, but thanks to some epic (and really enjoyable) collapses in the Champions League, it’s easy to turn that into a stick to beat Neymar with. Sometimes Neymar was on the field for those, sometimes he wasn’t, and neither absolves him of the blame that came his way. In either case, he can’t be relied on.
The real key to all this is that the world doesn’t love Neymar the way they do Messi. It’s some combination of the diving (not that Messi is above a flop on the reg. Ask Chelsea fans), his perceived more lackadaisical attitude to the sport or to work without the ball (as if Messi was some sort of pressing dynamo), the marketing campaigns, the results on the field, and now Kylian Mbappe’s reported distaste of having to play with him. None of these things have ever been attached to Messi, though he’s no less involved in marketing campaigns and Barcelona now have their own collection of comedic Champions League crashes themselves. Pssst…Barcelona never won a Champions League since Neymar left for PSG either.
(Also let’s get it all out there, Messi does not have a sexual assault accusation against him. Neymar does, though his team has denied the allegations.)
At the heart of it, Neymar’s brashness, loudness, and panache have always been used against him. Where Messi has always been the quiet, humble supernova on the field, if such a thing can be. We only know Messi on the pitch, and he’s worked hard to keep it that way. We know a lot about Neymar off the field.
Another difference between the two is how they’re embraced by their home country. Messi has, until recently, had something of a distance from Argentina, partly due to a lot of his childhood being spent in Spain, and not being the fiery character that Argentina legends of yore have been, added to the lack of success with the national team. Meanwhile, Messi has been embraced and loved the world over outside of Argentina.
Neymar is quintessentially Brazilian. He’s a party on the field and off, a walking flash of daring and dash. And yet the soccer world for the most part takes more delight in his failings than his triumphs (and I’ve been just as much a part of that). Perhaps what really galls the soccer world is that Neymar has always seemed like he didn’t give a flying fuck about all that either.
Perhaps this tournament shaping up as pyramid-shaped, leading to the sharp end where Argentina and Brazil will crash into each other in the semifinals, is the perfect climax of all of this. Both players, both teams, will carry the after-effects of that match forever. In that sense, Neymar has no less on the line. The perception, reality or not, that it matters to him less than it does Messi, is what galvanizes the discussion. But should he be the one lifting the trophy, it will be no less the signature image of his career.
So can Brazil do that? It would be near impossible to show up with a more loaded squad. Gabriel Jesus, currently the inspiration for the Premier League leaders, can’t get in the 11. Roberto Firmino, currently the leading scorer for Liverpool, can’t even get in the squad. Bruno Guimarães, the linchpin of Newcastle’s turn into a real power, won’t start either. Vinicius Jr., perhaps the main weapon for Real Madrid, isn’t a guaranteed starter either. Gleison Bremer, who won the latest Defender Of The Season in Serie A, won’t start as well. There is no deeper team, especially now with France’s injury problems.
And manager Tite might have found the perfect blend of joga bonito and the European game where all his charges play. Unlike PSG, Brazil makes up for Neymar’s disinterest without the ball by employing Richarlison, Raphinha, and Lucas Paquetá as a pressing front three without the ball. Fred is deployed behind Neymar, and though he is far from a perfect player, Fred’s industry is rarely in question. Casemiro is the more controlled, smooth destructive force to dovetail with Fred or Fabinho. Brazil can revert to their traditional 4-2-2-2, with Neymar combining with Richarlison, but it can also be a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-4 or 4-3-3 or even a 3-2-2-3 with the ball. It’s pliable.
What could possibly be their thermal exhaust port? The defense skews a touch old, but it doesn’t always have to. Thiago Silva hasn’t been great for Chelsea this season, and he’s 38. But he’s partnered with Marquinhos, who has some of the same PSG stink that Neymar does but is also one of the best defenders in the world. And again, should they need it, Bremer is first off the bench, and Madrid standout Éder Militãois behind that. And should it all break down, Alisson is in goal and he’s spent his season putting out all the fires at Liverpool and might be the best keeper one-on-one in the world.
Perhaps that everything flows through Neymar will be seen as the problem, because people want it to be. And he is the fulcrum of the entire attack. He drops deep to get the ball off the holding midfielders and lasers passes of all distances and shapes to the three attackers ahead of him. But there have been times when both PSG and Brazil have found a struggle when that route from Neymar is cut off. When he’s either crowded out or just isn’t there. 2019’s team got to play a whole tournament and get accustomed to life without him. But Argentina in the 2021 Copa final found it pretty simple to nullify Brazil with Neymar (0.7 xG for Brazil despite trailing for an hour). It was basically the same team as the one that will be in Qatar. Neymar had double the touches in the attacking third of any of his teammates, but created next to nothing.
Can Brazil use him as a decoy when he’s blanketed? Will Neymar accept not being the focal point for a quarterfinal or semifinal? Can the team pivot that quickly if it needs to?
These questions are no lighter than the ones for Messi. It’s just that most everyone wants the negative answers for Neymar.
It is not the easiest group for Brazil. Cameroon will either use the tournament to shake off the cobwebs from last winter’s AFCON or to continue the hangover. The Indomitable Lions were cruising before and during that tournament that they hosted. They blitzed their World Cup qualifying group, winning five of six with the only loss being away to Ivory Coast. Their run in the AFCON was pretty simple, waltzing past Comoros and Gambia in the knockout rounds. But in the semifinals they got Quieroz’d by Egypt, losing on penalties after a 0-0 draw that was cruel and unusual to watch.
And since then, things have been wonky. They squeaked by Algeria in the WCQ playoffs with a goal in the 124th minute of the second leg from Karl Toko Ekambi. They’ve lost to Uzbekistan and South Korea in their most recent friendlies. This draw hasn’t been kind to them either, as their preference to want to play with the ball but to leave the wide areas deserted could be exploited by every other team in this group.
Serbia will bring something rarely seen these days in the modern game, and that’s an honest-to-goodness striker partnership. Assuming Aleksandar Mitrović is healthy for the tournament, that is. But if he is, both he and Dusan Vlahović are genuine center forwards, and instead of having a country-wide debate about who should start, manager Dragan Stojković has just employed a 3-5-2 system around them. They combined for 12 goals in qualifying and another five in their latest round of Nations League fixtures as they clobbered both Sweden and Norway. Dusan Tadić is usually deployed behind the two as the timeless playmaker he’s been for Ajax, or he’s moved out wide to accommodate Filip Kostić in that role, If anyone is going to test Marquinhos and Thiago Silva early, it’s these two forwards.
Switzerland will present the opposite side of the coin from Serbia’s bruising wrecking ball of a strikeforce, as they prefer Breel Embolo’s pace to get in behind, with a strong throughline in the middle of the field from Fabian Schär to Granit Xhaka to Xherdan Shaqiri. They can insert new hotness Noah Okafor anywhere on the frontline to give it more juice as well. That kind of pace and players like Shaqiri and Xhaka who can spring counters quickly make Switzerland dangerous — ask France — to a team like Brazil or Cameroon that wants more of the ball and wants to get up the field. Brazil will feel tested early.
Seeing as how Cameroon’s Rigobert Song is one of two players to be sent off in multiple World Cups — the other is Zinedine Zidane, funnily enough — he’s the obvious pick.
There are some horrifying options in this group, with both Switzerland’s and Serbia’s away shirts looking like giant name tags, and Cameroon’s with some unfortunate striping decisions that make their shirts look like a chest x-ray. So just going with the traditional Brazilian look, because it’s never bad.
Thursday, Nov. 24 - Switzerland v. Cameroon (5 a.m. EST), Brazil v. Serbia (2 p.m. EST)
Monday, Nov. 28 - Cameroon v. Serbia (5 a.m. EST), Brazil v. Switzerland (11 a.m. EST)
Friday, Dec. 2 - Cameroon v. Brazil, Switzerland v. Serbia (2 p.m. EST)