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Neymar carries hopes of Brazil on his shoulders


Figure it out: Neymar shows off a model of himself at yesterday’s Brazil press conference

Figure it out: Neymar shows off a model of himself at yesterday’s Brazil press conference

Getty Images

Figure it out: Neymar shows off a model of himself at yesterday’s Brazil press conference

I asked Cafu, at an art exhibition celebrating sublime Brazilian football, set in the cool elegance of the Parque do Ibirapuera here: "So who do you fear a little? Perhaps the Argentines?".

"We fear no one. We will lose to no one," said a man who knows more about World Cup finals than any other Brazilian, having played in three and won two of them.

That is the Brazilians and their football team for you.

There was a modicum of half-hearted talk about complacency in this city's newspapers yesterday.

The term frio na garriga (butterflies in the stomach) cropped up and Tostao, one of the fabled class of Mexico 1970, spoke wisely by cautioning that Luis Felipe Scolari's European-based players – strangers to many in this vast land – will be branded "mercenaries" if the country loses.

But losing does not appear to come into the equation. Part of the reason for that is Scolari.

At a time in the four-year football cycle when the Brazilian manager traditionally comes under fire someone or another – Dunga was being crucified in 2010 for leaving Neymar at home – Scolari is seen as the saviour.

A craze for sporting Scolari fake moustaches is suddenly taking hold and the news that his nephew has died in a car crash only cemented the affection yesterday. One by one his players hugged him.

The bonhomie masks a genuine fragility about Brazil's hopes, though.

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Tostao's talk about mercenaries was wise because this squad has a serious image problem.

Neymar is adored because he was so clearly betrothed to this city and to Santos. Others, like David Luiz and the Hulk are strangers among their countrymen.

Previous generations are not exactly helping erase the cynicism about the players having their noses in the trough.

News here that Ronaldo has an interest in the company which has sold the plastic seats which are in each of the new World Cup stadium, has done the team's image pitifully little good.

This is the reason why the World Cup group stage has been organised into a Grand Tour, taking in Brasilia and Fortaleza: an arduous, 2,436-mile project guaranteed to keep them away from the Maracana until the final.

Belgium, by comparison, will travel only 430 miles.

"I will be flying, conquering the fans," Hulk said. He is winning the battle of the strangers more than most. His role in Brazil's Confederation Cup win last year has endeared him to the people. But others do not carry his popularity.

Hulk is also the one who has been creating the last-minute interest.

He was depicted with his cartoon character's green body in one of the papers yesterday and is valued for his ability to drop deep from his advanced midfield position, do the hard work and draw some of the responsibility from Neymar.

"He is the best tactician in the offensive quarter," says one observer.

But Neymar is the one on whom so much depends and that seems unenviable for any 22-year-old – even one with as much belief as him.

"When you look back at the 2002 team, they had three great players," says the Brazilian journalist Rodrigo Mattos. "Now there is only Neymar. He is 22. He is only a boy but he has all the responsibility."

Much time and space has been taken up in the past two weeks with preoccupations about the significant role Brazilians may play in other teams.

Though Spain's Diego Costa is the obvious one, no one has forgotten that two Brazilians – Eduardo da Silva and Sammir – are in Niko Kovac's Croatia squad who are Brazil's first opponents tonight.

That's not the only concern. Talk has surrounded the Japanese referee for tonight, Yuichi Nishimura, who also refereed the Brazil-Holland game in which Felip Melo was sent off in the 2010 finals.

The Brazilians ought to be good enough to advance past their first opponents, though their awareness of what lies ahead was revealed by this week's training strategy.

Scolari has had them working on small pitches, refining the one-twos which are seen as a requirement to beat Croatia.

The Balkan threat lies in Luka Modric and the team's speed and touch and locals have been calling them the "Brazilians from Europe" and discussing the Efieto Croatia. (The Croatia Effect).

A nation expects.

Belfast Telegraph