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'You're f*cking Neymar!' - Can Brazil's most polarising player reignite World Cup campaign?

3:00 PM SGT 5/12/22
Neymar Brazil 2022 World Cup HIC 16:9
The No.10 upset some of his compatriots by backing Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election, but his value to the Selecao has become clear in Qatar

It looked like history was repeating itself towards the end of Brazil's World Cup opener against Serbia. Neymar in tears after being forced off the field in a World Cup match. This time, though, there were two big differences to 2014.

Firstly, there was the severity of the injury. When Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga thrust his knee into the back of Neymar in a quarter-final clash in Fortaleza eight years ago, the Brazilian was left with a fractured vertebra. His doctor told him afterwards that had the impact occurred just two centimetres to the right, he'd have lost the use of his legs.

Here in Qatar, Neymar got away with a badly swollen ankle after being levelled by a challenge from Nikola Milenkovic.

It kept him out of Brazil’s two subsequent group-stage games but, at a press conference on Sunday, it was revealed that the forward had been cleared to return to action in time for the Selecao's last-16 meeting with South Korea.

It is an undoubted boost for Tite's team, but not everyone back in Brazil will be happy. And that leads us on to the second big difference to 2014: the reaction.

There was universal sympathy for Neymar when his tournament was brought to such a brutal and abrupt end by Zuniga. However, when he hobbled off the field in Brazil's tournament-opener at Qatar 2022, some of his compatriots revelled in his misery.

The recent presidential election in Brazil was an unseemly affair, a bitter battle between the liberal challenger Luiz Inccio Lula da Silva and the right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro that exposed the deep ideological divisions in South America's largest country.

In the eyes of those that supported the victorious Lula, Neymar – and a number of his team-mates – ended up on the wrong side of history.

The Paris Saint-Germain superstar had very pointedly and publicly backed Bolsonaro, even posting a video of him singing along to one of the populist leader's jingles. Judging by some of the messages and images posted online when Neymar was left in tears by Milenkovic's tackle, it might some time before the forward is forgiven for the way in which he voted.

Casemiro was among those disgusted by those that derived pleasure from his team-mate's torment. "It's a shame that people wish others harm," the Brazil midfielder told reporters. "They lack character completely. I think education comes from the cradle.

"Personally, I'm sad, because Neymar doesn't deserve this. He's a person who helps others so much."

The legendary Ronaldo, meanwhile, was so upset by the affair that he felt compelled to pen an open letter.

"I couldn't start this any other way," the goalscoring icon wrote, "you're f*cking Neymar! Giant! I am sure that most Brazilians, like me, admire and love you...

"There will always be people rooting against you, but it is sad to see society on a path of trivialising intolerance, of normalising hate speech. It is against this verbal violence with destructive power that I write to you today: come back stronger! Smarter! Hungry for goals!

"The good you do on and off the field is much greater than envy towards you. Don't forget for a second the journey that made you a world football idol. Brazil loves you! The real fans – the ones who are in favour – need your goals, dribbles, boldness and joy! Don't exalt the cowards and envious.

"Celebrate the love that comes from most of your country. You will bounce back Neymar! And may all the hate turn into fuel.”

Tite will certainly be hoping that Neymar is over his injury, and the negative reaction that followed. Because what's become abundantly clear since he left the field against Serbia is that Selecao are not the same side without their talisman.

Indeed, they've managed just one goal in the interim, and even that was a deflected strike from Casemiro.

"We have quality players, but if we compare them with Neymar, it is difficult to find someone of his level," the defensive midfielder said during the group stage. "The range of options is very wide, which is good for us, but we have to be realistic and accept that Neymar is the star of the team."

It is, of course, important to remember that Tite rang the changes for Brazil's final group game, against Cameroon, given their place in the knockout stage was already assured. However, even that points to a problem.

As Casemiro alluded to, one of the main reasons why so many pundits tipped Brazil to win this tournament was their wonderful array of attackers. However, the stellar supporting cast have, thus far, failed to fire, and Gabriel Jesus' injury-enforced withdrawal hardly helps matters, as the Arsenal ace was essentially serving as Richarlison's understudy.

The Spurs striker, of course, started the tournament in sensational fashion, scoring both goals, including a stunning scissor-kick, in the 2-0 win over Serbia. He was, though, dire against Switzerland, failing dismally to get into the game before being mercifully withdrawn with 17 minutes to go.

Gabriel Martinelli did, at least, impress against Cameroon, but Rodrygo and Antony both underwhelmed. For all Brazil's dominance of the ball, they failed to find the back of the net and were ultimately undone by Vincent Aboubakar's injury-time winner.

It was an insignificant loss in the grand scheme of things, as the Selecao still topped their group. However, it sparked further debate in Brazil about the team's dependence on Neymar, and not only in terms of scoring goals, but also providing a creative spark.

The expectation was that Vinicius Junior would fill the void, but the Real Madrid winger is still searching for his very best form.

The belief – or perhaps hope – is that Neymar's return will restore fluency to the forward line. As Antony admitted, "We know how important he is, because of the star that he is," while Richarlison added, "The most important thing for us is to have him at 100 percent for the next match."

He's highly unlikely to be fully fit, of course, at least not match fit. But his mere presence appears to be pivotal to this set of players. Even the fact he tried to stay on the field for 11 minutes after the Milenkovic tackle did not go unnoticed by his team-mates. Richarlison, remember, scored twice during that time.

So, while maybe not everyone in Brazil will be glad to see Neymar in the Selecao starting line-up against South Korea on Monday night, his team-mates will certainly be thrilled to have him back.

They've had a lot to deal with over the past two weeks. There have been other injuries, issues with air-conditioning and concerns over the health of a man they all look up to: Pele.

Neymar's availability, then, will at least remove some of the uncertainty surrounding the squad; bring a welcome end to the distracting and incessant speculation over whether one of the game's most polarising players would get to feature in another World Cup game.

His return won't unite a divided nation, of course. But it could bring the best out of Brazil.