LE HAVRE, France — As the announcer at the Stade Océane cycled through Brazil’s team on Friday, before the squad dismantled Ghana, 3-0, a murmur of appreciation greeted each familiar, stellar name. Alisson was granted gentle applause. Thiago Silva earned a respectful, admiring cheer. Raphinha drew a sizzle of anticipation.
And then, leaving just a hint of a dramatic pause, the announcer came to Neymar.
There were, perhaps, mitigating circumstances. The 30-year-old Neymar was, after all, on home turf, or something very close to it. Le Havre, a sleepy port town on the Normandy coast, sits just a couple of hours northwest of Paris. The stands were dotted not just with jerseys in Brazil’s bright canary yellow but with the rich, deep blue of his Paris St.-Germain club team, too.
But still, the contrast in his reception and those of his teammates felt telling. Brazil’s squad shimmers with stars. Alisson may be the finest goalkeeper on the planet. Thiago Silva is probably the best defender of his generation. Casemiro was part of the most dominant midfield in modern history.
Even among their number, though, Neymar stands out. Their fame is not comparable to his, not really; the excitement he engenders, the adoration he receives and the wonder he instills are of a different order of magnitude. It was Neymar who was picked out on the big screen, again and again, during warm-ups. It was Neymar who had to sing his national anthem with a camera no more than six inches from his face. In a team full of headline acts, he remains the undisputed main event, the leading character, the center of gravity.
For now, at least. As the roar that had met Neymar’s name subsided, the announcer still had one player left to introduce. “Numéro vingt,” he said — “Vinicius Junior.” The cheer that followed was not quite so loud as Neymar’s. It did not last quite as long. But the difference was not so stark as might have been expected.
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With two months to go before the World Cup, Tite, the Brazil coach, would not have it any other way. It has been 20 years since Brazil was declared champion of the world; miss out again in Qatar, and the wait for a sixth crown will match the lacuna between the third and fourth.
More troublingly still, in the past four tournaments, it has not really gone close: beaten comfortably by the French in 2006, the Dutch in 2010 and the Belgians in Russia four years ago. The team made the semifinals on home soil in 2014, of course, but the less said about how that particular story ended, from a Brazilian point of view, the better.
That defeat, though, highlighted the problem that has beset Brazil for the past decade. Neymar was missing with an injury as Germany etched a scar on the national psyche in the Maracana in 2014 (joined on the sidelines, not insignificantly, by Thiago Silva). In his absence, Brazil seemed bereft, adrift, unable to conceive of how to win the game without its leading man, the player to whom the team, as much as the country, was in thrall.
He was present in Russia, but he was subdued, his legs weary and his inspiration dulled, easily corralled by Belgium in the stifling heat. Still, though, Brazil continued to look to him, to hope that he might somehow lift himself, and carry them with him. If he could not, they did not seem to know who might.
This time around, things should be different. Vinicius, a few months on from scoring the winning goal in a Champions League final, is surging, European soccer’s breakout star. His teammates and his nation have rallied around him in the aftermath of the racist abuse he has received in Spain for having the temerity to celebrate his goals; several fans had made their way to the Stade Océane to urge him to keep dancing.
He is not alone. Brazil’s attacking resources run so deep that Tite did not even have to call up Gabriel Jésus and Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal’s forwards, for his squad; he could afford to introduce Rodrygo, Vinicius’s Real Madrid teammate, with just a couple of minutes to go. Roberto Firmino did not even make it off the bench. For what may be the first time in his international career, Neymar does not need to feel that everything hinges on him.
Perhaps his performance, then, can be explained by a newfound sense of freedom. Perhaps he is playing unfettered by the suffocating pressure that he has carried for so long. Perhaps, on what may be the strongest team that Brazil has boasted since 2002 — a team, certainly, more than capable of ending the country’s wait — he feels more comfortable, more capable of expressing himself.
Whatever the reason, his display against Ghana was that of a man neither willing nor ready to vacate center stage. It would have been enough that he created two of Brazil’s three goals, both of them finished off by Richarlíson — Marquinhos scored the other, a thunderous header from a corner — but that was the reward for, rather than the total of, everything he did.
Neymar, it is fair to say, looks different this season. He has now registered 11 goals and 10 assists in 12 games for club and country, a streak of form that makes it feel somehow deeply strange that roughly two months ago, not only did P.S.G. appear willing to sell him, but nobody seemed desperately keen to buy the most expensive player in the sport’s history.
The raw numbers, as ever, are merely an illustration. There has been a sharpness, a poise and, perhaps most encouraging of all, an invention to Neymar over the past couple of months. Tite has said that he is “flying,” his “speed and execution in perfection sync.” Even Thierry Henry, habitually unimpressed, feels he has “come to tell everyone: Don’t forget me.”
Against Ghana, it was there in his delivery, whip-smart and inch-perfect. It was there in the moments he sped up, feinting and shifting his weight and accelerating away from his opponents. And, most of all, it was there in the moments he slowed down. More than once, he found himself with the ball at his feet, in the penalty area, and he seemed to stop, to pause, before picking the right pass, the perfect pass, the one that carved Ghana open.
That has always been Neymar’s gift: picking his moments. As the World Cup hovers into view, as that sixth star starts to exert a gravity on Brazil, he seems to have done it again.