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Switzerland refuse to roll over as Neymar is kicked into Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow

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Until you have been in a mixed zone, and seen a room full of grown (mostly) men react to another grown man indicating he might talk to them by trampling over each other like the most rabid Black Friday bargain-hunters in the world, you have not witnessed true indignity.

In case you don’t know, the mixed zone at football matches is a corridor or carefully roped-off room that lies between the dressing rooms and the exit. Once they have scrubbed and freshened up - and in this specific case had some dinner before jumping straight on a plane - in order to leave the players must walk through this room or corridor, the outer parts of which are lined by anxious-looking journalists clutching dictaphones hoping for a minute or two of snatched conversation.

After Brazil drew 1-1 with Switzerland on Sunday, a smaller-than-he-looks-on-the-telly figure with hoodie pulled tightly over his egg noodle hairdo, limped through this gauntlet. In response to the multiple requests for discussion, Neymar indicated towards a certain point on the line: "If you want to talk to me, head over there." And head many did, scrambling to form a ruck around the battered superstar as they enquired after his ankle health.

“It’s fine, nothing to worry about,” assured Neymar, who had spent the game being hoofed up in the air by a selection of carefully rotating Swiss hardmen. Everyone was relieved, not just Brazilians: what is a World Cup without the world’s best?

A couple of hours earlier we were all watching Neymar’s return to competitive football, playing for the first time since breaking his metatarsal in February - and in the first game of a World Cup, too. If a small bone in a foot can have dramatic timing, Neymar’s did.

Brazil’s relationship with Neymar is complicated, a nation that not only lauds but for a while depended on his skills, who now logically speaking does not lean quite so heavily on them but remains fascinated with them, and him.

That Brazil are no longer dependent on Neymar is why they’re the favourites to win this World Cup, Tite having created a side that can get the best from their No.10 but is not made or broken by him. When he was injured four years ago the nation - and specifically most damagingly his teammates - seemed to suffer an undignified collective meltdown. This time there was concern, of course, but with the sense that the sky would not fall in if he wasn’t there.

What was fascinating about the way Neymar played against Switzerland was how he seems to be adapting to his new status as Brazil’s best option rather than their only option. These days Philippe Coutinho, Willian, Gabriel Jesus - hell, even Paulinho - can step up if the golden boy isn’t there.

Brazil v Switzerland: Group E - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

But quite often, Neymar played like he was the only one Brazil was turning its lonely eyes to. On a few occasions he took the ball himself when a pass might have been more sensible, he shot from implausible angles.

It was as if we were watching a man who should have been relieved that he was no longer a one-man team, but secretly missed it, like a curious form of Stockholm Syndrome. By his own manager’s admission, Neymar is not 100% fit, but Neymar played as if he was desperately trying to show he was. This was 90 minutes of a man striving to make a point, but not quite getting there.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH9-BRA-SUI

He also showed some of that admirable courage that most creative players do, which was to keep on going despite a series of early reducers, potentially aiming for that injured foot but more likely designed just to unsettle him. Legs presumably hacked at like a stubborn oak tree, he got up and tried it again. And again. And one more time.

At the end of the game nobody looked more disappointed than Neymar, because he’s used to this being his responsibility. From a young age, Neymar has been accustomed to the team winning or losing based on his performances. After so long as the only hope, it’s no wonder that Neymar might be taking a while to adjust.

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Topics:
World Cup diary
Football
Brazil Football
Philippe Coutinho
Neymar
World Cup

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