Neymar's brilliance and immaturity have been on display at Copa America
There was a time not long ago when Brazil boasted countless world-class attackers.
It was a time when, for example, Marcio Amoroso could finish as top goal scorer in Brazil, Italy and Germany, but count himself fortunate simply to be named in the Brazil squad. Mario Jardel scored 130 goals in 125 league games for Porto and collected only 10 caps, usually as a substitute. Giovane Elber, meanwhile, spent a decade banging in the Bundesliga goals and managed just 15 caps.
Arguably all three would now be regulars, because Brazil's lack of attacking talent has become a serious problem. Fred led the line at the World Cup, now the options are China-based Diego Tardelli, a washed-up Robinho and Roberto Firmino, a brilliantly talented player but not really a striker. Luckily, Brazil have Neymar, too.
Without Neymar, Brazil might genuinely be regarded as a second-tier football side, a plucky underdog boasting an organised defence and a combative midfield but little up front. A more glamorous version of Serbia.
With Neymar, they transform into an organised unit boasting a genuine superstar. Dunga resisted calls to include the youngster, who had been hyped from an early age, as a wild card in his 2010 squad before Mano Menezes and Luiz Felipe Scolari embraced him over the next four years. The Barcelona star's influence grew to the point that last year's World Cup squad became, essentially, all about Neymar.
It's difficult to imagine any footballer has ever been under as much pressure as Neymar heading into a tournament; he was the only good Brazilian attacker in a home World Cup. Having generally played in a left-sided position for his national side until then, Scolari made Neymar his No. 10 and based the team around him. It was Neymar or nothing.
And so it proved: Neymar scored four goals to ensure Brazil finished top of Group A, then was a little quieter as Brazil scraped past fellow South Americans Chile and Colombia, but was always the key man. Then came the infamous moment that ended his World Cup, Juan Zuniga's challenge breaking a bone in his back; coincidentally, at the end of a game in which Brazil had determinedly tried to bully James Rodriguez.
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Underlining how much Brazil would miss him, David Luiz and Julio Cesar clutched Neymar's jersey as they belted out the national anthem in Belo Horizonte before the 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany. It was a good-natured gesture, but also ludicrously mawkish and a recognition that Brazil were in utter chaos without him. Would Neymar have prevented Brazil defending like buffoons? Of course not, but the mentality of the side would have been completely different.
A year on, Neymar is leading Brazil under Dunga, and thus far has demonstrated the two sides of his character. On one hand, there are outrageous moments of genius, on the other, evidence that Neymar is still an immature 23-year-old. Either way, his Copa America so far has made for fascinating viewing.
Neymar's performance against Peru in Brazil's opener was magical. He produced a wonderful piece of trickery early on, flicking the ball over two defenders' heads consecutively before being fouled -- as is customary in South America when a flair player shows his skill. Neymar also scored Brazil's equaliser with a cool finish.
It was his performance after the break, though, that was most impressive. First, from his favoured inside-left position he checked inside before curling a wonderful shot onto the crossbar from 25 yards. It was the type of strike the defenders know is coming, the goalkeeper knows is coming, but are all powerless to stop it and simply have to pray for the best.
That shot provided crucial context for what happened in the final minute. Neymar received the ball in an identical position and shaped inside to shoot, which was why four Peruvian defenders rushed toward him and goalkeeper Pedro Gallese advanced slightly, narrowing the angle.
Then, however, to the surprise of absolutely everyone, Neymar rolled a delicious ball across the 18-yard box to substitute Douglas Costa, totally unmarked. He converted neatly.
But it was all about Neymar; not merely the measured penetrative pass, which was like a snooker player bisecting the gap between four reds to send the cue ball up the table to the yellow, but the previous move, when he struck the bar. Had Neymar not shown he was capable of that long-range strike, he wouldn't have attracted so many defenders. The key, therefore, was that Neymar was capable of brilliance, but was also unselfish, and was using his individual abilities to benefit teammates. That's the mark of a leader.
Wednesday night's contest with Colombia, though, showed all Neymar's worst qualities. Perhaps riled up by the thought of what happened in last year's World Cup quarterfinal, Brazil's captain was selfish with his use of the ball and petulant when it came to opposition challenges. Colombia tried to physically unsettle him, certainly, but this is simply what happens in South American football, as Brazil had shown in last summer's game.
Neymar collected his second booking of the tournament just before halftime -- although both were somewhat harsh. He was cautioned against Peru for removing part of the referee's free-kick spray with his hand, then last night for an accidental handball when attempting to head in a cross.
Still, wiser players wouldn't have subsequently pulled back the referee. They certainly wouldn't have blasted a ball at an opponent after the full-time whistle. They wouldn't have head-butted an opponent in the resulting melee. Neymar was shown the red card as he escaped down the tunnel, a sorry end to a frustrating performance. He'll miss Brazil's final group game against Venezuela, a match where Brazil still might need a result. Again, his side will be forced to cope without him.
The selfishness, though, was arguably even more frustrating, simply because it was the exact opposite approach to his brilliant performance in the preceding game. Neymar tried to do everything himself, rather than looking to teammates.
This is why, of course, there remains a huge gap between Neymar and Lionel Messi. The latter's selflessness is obvious in every match, as is his ability to ignore physical intimidation and dribble past rough tackles. Neymar has learned much from his Barcelona teammate, but there's still some way to go before he should be considered in Messi's class.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.