The World Cup is finally upon us!!! After a long four-year wait, the most polarizing sport tournament on the planet is about to begin. It doesn't matter if you're a fan of soccer or not, you want to watch it - by the way, I'll say ‘soccer' a lot here. If you're mad at me for it, live with it - because the whole world watches it for 30 days. Anything can happen, 32 countries play for their people and all three hundred nations have their eyes on every game. The World Cup makes a match between Algeria and Iran look cool. Think about it.
Anyway, welcome to Brazil, the happiest country in the world. We party because of everything. We party when things are good, we party when things are not good. We just party and we can't help it. Also, we have a rich tradition in soccer, and we're proud to host the World Cup for the second time in history. Sure, there are a million problems and the country will actually stay full of them after the FIFA Circus leaves - actually, they brought us a lot of problems. But it won't matter for the next month. That's the insane beauty of this sport - we can read thousands of articles showing how corrupted FIFA is and how big issues they bring to the countries they select to host their events. But it doesn't matter. We want to watch the best soccer possible, and that's what we're going to see.
Brazil is the winningest team in World Cup history, with five titles. This is the team that made us love the beauty of soccer. This is the team that introduced us to Garrincha, Pelé, Zico, Sócrates, Romário, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaká, Neymar. This is the only team to have competed in every edition of the Cup, and that's the only team that is going to be a heavy favorite to win every single time. That's just the way it is. It's not different this year, especialy because Brazil hosts it.
The pressure of winning the Cup was never this big. If Brazil loses, look out man. People will riot, literally. This World Cup is considerably related to politics, and the current government spent AAAAAAAAAAY LOT OF MONEY to build stadiums and improve airports to receive the visitors in the best way possible. If the team loses, the government will be blamed for it, and things may go south around here. So the players have the weight of a nation (and its government) on their shoulders. It will not be easy for the Seleção.
That's why Big Phil Scolari and a whole nation will expect the best performance ever from Brazil's biggest hope: Barcelona's Neymar. The 22-year-old phenom is the team' s best player, and the whole reason Brazil is in this good position to compete for the title. The system is designed for Neymar to run it, and the team won't play well if he doesn't play well. If Neymar goes crazy during a seven-game stretch, things will be ugly for the rest of the competition. That's because the Neymar you'll watch during the Cup is NOT the Neymar you're trying to love at Barcelona.
The Seleção plays for him. Everybody knows he is the star, the best player, the one, so they'll bust their behinds off to put him in the best position possible to maximize his potential. Neymar can do whatever the heck he wants on the pitch. He is the only one not asked to defend, so he is the closest person to the opponent's goal, which gives Brazil good counter-attacking opportunities.
In essence, this is Brazil: very strong defense, quick passes, great counter-atacking, NEYMAR. Although the team is usually good when it has more ball possession and needs to create all the time, the yellow and green are more dangerous when playing off the ball, with strong pressure designed to recover the ball as close to the goal as possible. Once they have it, they unleash their wingers and full-backs to a quick attacking assault. If the opposing defense is set, they have no problem to start passing around until the ball gets to Neymar, who will usually be close to the box to either do things for himself or set up somebody else. They want to be efficient, but still look pretty doing this. They're Brazil, after all.
In this current squad, the importance of Neymar is incredible. Different from other World Cups, where Brazil had truly a lot of stars, this team has one true superstar who can decide the fate of a game with one touch and that's him. Also different from other Cups, this team's defense is really really good, with probably the best centre-back pairing in the world in Thiago Silva and David Luiz. Dani Alves and Marcelo are at the top of the full-back rankings.
(Side note: Dani Alves' crosses are really important in this team. Unlike Barcelona, Brazil has a good, strong, tall, reliable centre-forward who has good aerial skills. But screw it, Alves is probably not coming back anyway.)
In the middle, Luis Gustavo and Paulinho do a great job of protecting the defense and starting the offense. Gustavo is perhaps the team's most important player. He has the responsibility of marking and passing. In a Barça comparison, he is Busquets and Xavi at the same time. Hulk and Oscar are the workers. They were not fan favorites, but they have conquered Brazilians hearts with their effort and willingness to sacrifice individual success for the best of the team. Fred is a capable scorer who is really good at moving around and opening space in the box for Paulinho and Hulk penetrations. When the team needs him to put the ball into the net, he's always ready. And he is usually on fire during international duty.
But still, even with all this talent, Brazil is going nowhere without Neymar. All the work everybody else does is to make him comfortable on the pitch. And then, it's his responsibility to do the rest, like, scoring and assisting and stuff.
Just as an example, let's take a look at how the team performed in the two friendlies against Panama and Serbia, and how almost literally EVERYTHING happened because of him.
Against Panama, all four goals started and/or ended with a key pass and/or contribution from Neymar. You can watch the highlights if you want to.
Here's how the 1-0 starts:
This is a counter attack. Notice how Neymar is the second closest to the goal. He would eventually get fouled and execute a masterful set piece.
The 2-0 is textbook Neymar influence:
Look how he draws four Panama defenders, and three more are getting close. He would eventually flop, but because he drew so many people to the left side, Dani Alves had a lot of space on the right to find a hole for the strike.
The 3-0 is a BEAUTEE:
This happened at the very start of the second half. You can see how Neymar is the deepest Brazil player down the field, working as a centre-forward. But he would be a playmaker, and put Hulk in front of the goal with a beautiful backheel pass.
(Side note: WHAT ABOUT THE FREAKING MACARENA DANCE BY HULK??????)
Neymar can play wherever he wants. Even in the right side!!! It's true! This is a good opportunity in which Ney starts the play on the right, and finds Fred for a missed header.
That means Neymar has the freedom to do whatever he wants, and he'll move from side to side whenever he pleases, and that usually ends up well for the team.
And here comes the fourth goal:
The play starts with Neymar at the classical playmaking position, and he'll orchestrate here. Notice how the movement from left to center opens a huge gap for left-back Maxwell, and he enters that space. Neymar finds him, Maxwell crosses it to William, and the ball is at the net again.
Against Serbia, Brazil played way differently. The challenge was more difficult than Panama, and this match exposed Big Phil's scheme weaknesses. The most clear weakness is the fact that Brazil can't create anything from the middle. Oscar is not a playmaker, he's more of a finisher. Gustavo is too far away from the goal to do any harm, Paulinho only knows what shooting the ball is, and Neymar played bad and was well defended. The result: a 1-0 battle that saw defensive mistakes (most of them by Dani Alves, by the way), lack of patience and offensive creativity.
In the 57th minute, Brazil somehow found a goal when a nice cross by Thiago Silva went right into Fred, and that's when having a true number 9 makes a difference. He lost balance, fell to the ground, but still managed to score. That's why he's there, and that's why Fred is Brazil biggest hope when the Neymar Plan doesn't work like it should.
But that's the part where things get interesting: the Neymar Plan will still work because he's still so good that he can do brilliant things with one touch. And that's what he did in his only great moment in the match:
LOOK. AT. THIS. PASS. This is a work of art that found Hulk alone to score the second goal. Unfortunately, the goal didn't count because the assistant referee somehow saw an offside here. It doesn't matter. It's still beautiful.
Neymar enters the World Cup as probably the headliner. Maybe more than Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, he is perhaps who people want to see more, mainly because he is the best player of the host of the tournament. The spotlight is on him. It's his moment to shine. He is ready for it.
It's clear that this World Cup is ‘Neymar or Bust' for Brazil. He's their best player, best talent, biggest star. Biggest hope. Hope of a nation. A nation that puts pressure but that also believes. Believes in the title, in the joy. In the party. Welcome to the party. Welcome to Brazil. Welcome to the excitement. Welcome to the World Cup.
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