Brazil need Neymar to win the World Cup – even if some fans disagree

Brazil have reached the knockout stages of the World Cup without conceding as much as a shot on target. They booked their place in the last 16 with a 1-0 win over Switzerland, following up on their 2-0 win over Serbia in their opening game, but are aware that tougher challenges lie ahead.

They saw off Switzerland without Neymar. Football’s most expensive player went off with 10 minutes to play in Brazil’s first game, against Serbia, when the points were already secure thanks to a stunning second-half double from Richarlison. Photos of Neymar’s swollen ankle spread quickly on social media in Brazil. Given that he missed 12 games for Paris Saint-Germain last season after a similar injury, and five the season before, fears crept in that his tournament was over. Brazil’s team doctor, Rodrigo Lasmar, reassured the country that he was receiving treatment “with our objective of trying to recover in time for this competition”.

Even though Brazil dominated possession against Switzerland and did not look like conceding, their struggles to score reinforced the idea that they suffer from Neymardependência. Now playing in a No 10 position, with the Real Madrid winger Vinicius Jr taking his former role of the left, the 30-year-old is Brazil’s creative heartbeat. He was their top scorer in qualifying with eight goals, to go with his eight assists, and remains their biggest threat. Neymar has scored 75 goals for Brazil (just two short of Pelé’s all-time record), while the other 25 members of the World Cup squad have scored 89 between them.

Neymar knits the attack together and his absence was obvious against Switzerland. Brazil had 23 shots against Serbia, but this dropped to 13 against the Swiss. Brazil had a similar number of passes in both games – 581 against Serbia compared to 550 against Switzerland – but the gulf in shots and xG (2.43 against Serbia compared with 1.02 against Switzerland) suggests they spent a lot of time knocking the ball around without finding a way of opening up the defence. Neymar is the player in their squad who is best equipped to thread through the final ball.

Brazil do not have a perfect replacement for Neymar. Against Switzerland they brought the defensive midfielder Fred into the starting lineup to partner his Manchester United teammate Casemiro, and pushed Lucas Paquetá further forward to take on Neymar’s responsibilities. The West Ham man was hooked after a flat first half.

On came Rodrygo, the stand-in the masses in Brazil wanted to see, and the player who claims Neymar has told him the No10 jersey will be passed from one Santos academy graduate to another one day. Rodrygo had an impact, providing the assist for Casemiro to score the only goal of the game. It was a goal made in the Bernabéu, with Vinicius Jr finding Rodrygo to set up their former clubmate Casemiro for the winner on 83 minutes.

Though excellent in the box – as he showed for Real Madrid when they won the Champions League last season – Rodrygo is not yet ready to fill Neymar’s boots and will need to do more than rubbing Ronaldo’s legs and trying to transform the legendary striker’s power to his own to step up anytime soon. “If I can do half of what Neymar does, I’ll be good enough,” he said after the match when asked to compare himself to a figure he described as “our best player”.

Brazil coasted into the last 16, but there is no denying the hole in their team. “We know how much he is missed,” said his PSG teammate Marquinhos “He is a great player. He makes the difference when the game is tough. It calls for him. He creates plays.” Fellow centre-back Éder Militão added: “He is greatly missed. There is nothing to say about his quality.”

“Neymar is Neymar, our No 10,” pointed out Richarlison, whose progressive opinions and humanitarian work have made him a folk hero among people on the left. “He takes the markers, moves up front and makes room for me, the No 9. He makes a lot of difference. I hope he recovers soon. I need him there.” The Brazil coach, Tite, also confessed that the Seleção missed Neymar. However, there are plenty of fans back home who could not care less about his return.

Neymar was openly mocked when he suffered his injury against Serbia, with most of the criticism coming from people who oppose his political opinions. “Neymar really paid tribute to Bolsonaro didn’t he?” tweeted the comedian Bruno Motta. “He did nothing and ended up crying.” Another celebratory tweet – from a doctor of all people – did the rounds on both sides of the debate: “Neymar injured in the first game. Brazil win the World Cup without him. Too tasty.”

The injury was welcomed by some supporters of the incoming president, Lula da Silva, who are disgusted with Neymar’s allegiance to the outgoing leader Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil is a country polarised between left and right, where the memories and emotions provoked by the election in October remain fresh and potent. If anything, Neymar has leant into those tensions. He danced to Bolsonaro’s election campaign song and promised to dedicate his first goal at the World Cup to him, risking Fifa punishment for making political statements.

The gleeful reaction to his injury has not been welcomed by the squad, though, with many in the dressing room expressing their disappointment with fans at home. Raphinha shared a post on Instagram that read: “Argentina fans treat Messi like a god. Portugal fans treat Cristiano Ronaldo like a king. Brazilian fans cheer for Neymar to break his leg. How sad, the biggest mistake in Neymar’s career is being born Brazilian, this country does not deserve his talent and your football.”

“It’s a shame that people wish harm to someone else,” reflected Casemiro in a press conference. “Unfortunately in life we have this – bad people in the world who wish each other harm. I’m not going to comment much on this topic – I don’t want to talk about Brazilian, European or any other culture – but I want to say to people: manners. From the moment you wish someone harm, that’s very serious. I am very sad, mainly because they wish evil to someone who helps so many people, who has a huge heart. Neymar doesn’t deserve this.”

As Brazil continue in their quest to lift a win a sixth World Cup and their first in 20 years, it is clear that Neymar’s teammates have his back and are sure of his importance to the team, irrespective of his political preferences.