Not for the first time in recent weeks, Neymar felt suffocated and affronted. It is part and parcel of being a marked man, an unwanted by-product of his lavish gifts. And he reacted. Towards the end of last month, it had been in club colors for Paris Saint-Germain in le classique at Marseille and the result was a red card in the 87th minute. On this occasion, it was in the yellow of Brazil and, once again, there would be a sanction, if not as severe. The weird thing was that when Neymar chased a ball forward in the 55th minute of the friendly against Japan in Lille on Friday, his team were 3-0 up and the atmosphere at a half-empty Stade Pierre Mauroy was hardly the bear pit of the Vélodrome.
Coincidentally – or perhaps not – his adversary was the defender Hiroki Sakai, who plays for Marseille and had been on the Vélodrome pitch when Neymar felt the red mist come down. In that game, having been involved in niggle throughout, Neymar reacted to a trip by the winger Lucas Ocampos by squaring up to him. He would receive a second yellow card.
In Lille, he grappled and tussled with Sakai, who refused to let him wriggle clear and then Neymar aimed his dig. It was part-cuff, part-slap and it caught Sakai across the back of his head. It surely did not hurt that much but Sakai reached his hand up to feel where it had landed. He did so with a flourish.
There followed a video assistant referee interlude, of the type we may have to get used to. The on-field official, Benoît Bastien, retreated to study a monitor behind an advertising board on halfway and when he returned he made the outline of a television set before showing the yellow card to Neymar. The Brazilian could not believe it. How dare Bastien. Neymar smiled, as he did after his dismissal in Marseille, and he made it plain that this was not the sort of thing that ought to happen to football royalty.
Neymar’s cockiness is a part of his appeal and, in many ways, it underpins his tricks and body swerves and all of the rest. But the world’s most expensive player has shown signs of late that he is in danger of crossing the line into petulance and entitlement.
Against Japan, which finished in a 3-1 Brazil win, he looked at Bastien whenever there was the slightest contact from an opponent and he fully expected to be given the free-kick. Sometimes, he was; sometimes, he wasn’t but it felt as though he was yet another assistant referee.
The countdown to the World Cup finals has started and every Brazil player can sense the scrutiny of his temperament. The mission has long been signposted: to avenge the 7-1 humiliation against Germany from the semi-finals of their World Cup in 2014. But with Neymar, who lives his life under the most brilliant of glares, it is more pronounced.
Tite, the Brazil manager, knows that he can ill-afford a lapse of discipline from Neymar in Russia and when he discussed the pressures on him it was revealing that he offered both sympathy and a reminder of his responsibilities.
“Neymar has made some mistakes with his reactions and he knows that this is wrong,” said Tite, who is now preparing for the friendly against England at Wembley on Tuesday. “I will talk about the last red card he got [for PSG]. He took a tackle and another one seconds later. Everyone is trying to stop him with fouls but he cannot react to this. I have talked with him about this. I tell him: ‘Just go to the halfway line.’
“The referee was right when he gave Neymar the yellow card against Japan. But the use of video technology will be a good thing because it will make for a fairer game.
“When we talk about players like Neymar, Willian, Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus, they are really fast and this is how defenders stop them. Against Japan, there was a sequence of fouls on Gabriel but I told him: ‘Go to halfway. Just play.’ This is the thing.”
If Brazil play like they have done under Tite, it will be easy to fancy them at the finals. When the former Corinthians manager succeeded Dunga in June 2016, the team had taken nine points from their first six World Cup qualifiers. They lagged sixth in the South American standings and, this being Brazil, there was hysteria that they might not qualify.
Tite has steadied the ship and more. Under him, the team took 32 points from an available 36 to qualify in style, well ahead of the chasing pack. This being Brazil, the pendulum has now swung dramatically. There is conviction among the supporters that their destiny is to win the World Cup.
“We are not the favorites,” Willian said with a smile. “We’ll leave that part to you guys in the media. But we are ready. Of course, we are ready. I think we are in a good way.”
One of the symbols of the Tite-inspired upturn has been Paulinho, who played under him at Corinthians when the club won the Copa Libertadores and the World Club Cup in 2012. Paulinho moved to Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, where he failed to make his mark, and he was playing at Guangzhou Evergrande in China when Tite got the Brazil job and surprisingly recalled him.
How Paulinho has responded. The midfielder scored six goals during qualification, including a hat-trick in the 4-1 win against Uruguay in Montevideo, and last summer he earned a transfer to Barcelona.
Tite has reshaped the squad and he has promoted trust and collective responsibility, most overtly with his policy of rotating the captaincy from game to game. Willian wore the armband against Japan for the first time in his international career and Tite has suggested that he could continue with the approach in Russia, however unusual it would be. “Everyone has to be a leader, not only one player,” Willian said. “Everyone has a responsibility to go on to the pitch to play, shout and do everything.”
It is Neymar who bears the greatest burden and he has been stung by claims that his relationships with the PSG manager, Unai Emery, and his club-mate Edinson Cavani have broken down. Tite insisted that the stories were untrue but the overriding call to his players was for focus.
It is a different Brazil squad to 2014 and of the 25 players that Tite will bring to Wembley only seven were involved at the last World Cup. Willian was one of them and he lived the nightmare of the 7-1. The scar will never disappear but he believes that the healing process is underway.
“The last World Cup ended strangely but, day by day, you can turn this situation,” Willian said. “We’ve done that. Now, it’s another story and Brazil have the confidence to go to the World Cup and win.”