Granted, Brazil probably deserved to win their Group E opener. Mexican referee Cesar Ramos was old school—to put it mildly—allowing Swiss markers to brazenly hold back or knock down Neymar time and again. Even the Swiss header into goal for the equalizer came from a shove that a European referee might have called a foul, given the ongoing efforts to make football a better spectacle with tighter rules and stricter refereeing.
But Brazil also have themselves to blame for their inability to overcome the Swiss tactics and refereeing. The way they began promised a treat of old Ginga style Brazilian dribbling. And the goal from midfielder Philippe Coutinho matched that of Spain’s Nacho Fernandez for the best long-range strikes in this World Cup so far, not counting free kicks.
After that, Brazil’s free-flowing game stuttered against an organised and physically stronger Swiss side, emboldened by a lenient referee. Then the chinks in the Brazilian team began to show.
Almost every attacking move veered to the left, fixated on Neymar. This Brazilian side is less experienced than usual, with new coach Tite retaining only four players who took the field to be squashed 7-1 by Germany in the semifinal of the last World Cup at home. So it is understandable that they look to Neymar for inspiration.
Neymar did not play in that ignominious semi-final, having been carried out on a stretcher with a broken vertebra in the quarter-final against Colombia. In the 18-game qualifying campaign for this World Cup, the only game Brazil lost was to Argentina, when Neymar did not play.
It’s not as if a team can’t win a World Cup despite an over-dependence on one player. Diego Maradona’s Argentina of 1986 comes immediately to mind. But that was a Maradona in full stride. When he was too heavily marked to score goals himself, he could draw defenders away and create chances for others. He did that to perfection when he veered left with German defenders in pursuit and passed to Burruchaga who had a free run in the centre for the late winning goal in the final.
Neymar, on the other hand, is far from hitting his stride. He has seen little action since February, when he broke a bone in his ankle and opted for surgery to be fit in time for the World Cup. He appeared to be playing himself in, rather than going all out in the 1-1 draw with Switzerland, even after the second half Swiss equalizer. It was hard to take the ball off him without fouling, but some of his dribbles seemed unnecessary. He could have passed earlier.
Neymar was also conservative in floating a late-stage free kick into the penalty area from just outside the D instead of going for glory ala Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal. His rustiness was evident in the header he misdirected in the dying minutes when he had a clear chance to win the game for Brazil.
Neymar alone knows when he will trust his mended leg enough to give Brazil the play-making and striking edge it lacked in the opener. But the other 10 Brazilians on the field could also trust their abilities and take more ownership.
Neymar’s spaghetti mop of blonde-streaked hair acted like a constant beacon for his own side, not just the Swiss markers. This makes it easier for an opposition to focus on its defence.
Switzerland showed other teams in the tournament how to shut down Neymar and Brazil. But this will be harder to do when others step up as playmakers. There was enough evidence in the first quarter of the game that the squad has the talent not to be over-reliant on their spearhead.
So don’t write Brazil off. A stronger Neymar, as the tournament progresses, and a young promising forward like Gabriel Jesus sharing the spotlight can produce the results that lovers of Ginga crave for.
Most of all, the beautiful game calls out for 21st century refereeing, not a hark back to 1966 when Uruguayan players could take turns to foul Pele and ultimately remove him from the scene, or the 1990 final when a Mexican referee did as much as the German team to deny Maradona a second World Cup.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and independent writer based in Bengaluru.
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