Neymar allows others to bring style as Brazil talisman is brutally targeted again

There is something special about Brazil at the World Cup. With their bright shirts, their singing, their dancing, their great goals and great players, the Selecao embody what makes the tournament so magical. They are fitting five-time champions.

This has been a stop-start World Cup so far, with two notable upsets and shows of strength from Spain, England and France interspersed with a few too many goalless draws.

But it felt as though Qatar 2022 was kicking into gear this week as the late-starting Brazil squad were followed to Doha by their army of supporters, and the city turned yellow.

Emboldened by embarrassment for long-time rivals Argentina and 2014 foes Germany, Brazilian supporters have sought to make this tiny nation their own for the next four weeks.

That is not to say everyone wearing yellow has travelled from Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo or Belo Horizonte.

Brazil are not just the favourites but the neutrals' favourites. It feels important for the tournament they fare well – at least to start with.

The first half of Thursday's 2-0 defeat of Serbia might therefore have prompted some concern.

Tite is the first coach to take Brazil to consecutive World Cups since Tele Santana in 1982 and 1986, and this initially looked a little too alike to the underwhelming side he brought with him to Russia 2018.

The 61-year-old's starting XI had hinted at more. An ambitious 4-1-2-3 formation included Neymar, Vinicius Junior, Raphinha, Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta in the same team – attacking talent that would likely be the envy of Spain, who scored seven, or England, who hit six.

France, led by Neymar's Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe, might have their own case.

Didier Deschamps, without Karim Benzema, had again gone for Olivier Giroud through the middle and granted Mbappe freedom from the left in a 4-1 win over Australia.

The sheer number of Brazilian forwards around him prevented Neymar from taking a similar role in Lusail, forced to come deep into areas of the pitch where he could more easily be kicked.

Across the 2014 and 2018 World Cups combined, Neymar was fouled a leading 44 times – or once every 21 minutes, more often than any other player impeded on at least 25 occasions.

His enthusiasm for theatrics was widely criticised in Russia, but the Brazil talisman could scarcely be blamed for seeking protection. Neymar had been booted out of the previous World Cup, seeing the Selecao humiliated in his absence, and headed to the 2018 tournament having missed a chunk of PSG's season with a foot fracture.

Hurting Neymar hurts Brazil, clearly. That was a theory Serbia went along with.

Neymar fouls won
Neymar fouls won

There were no over-the-top tumbles or spectacular somersaults this time, just kick after kick to brutally bring the Brazil number 10 to his knees.

Neymar came to Qatar "without injury or worry", in "this best Neymar mode", Thiago Silva had said, only for nine fouls – one shy of his own Brazil World Cup record (10 versus Switzerland in 2018) – to be inflicted on the 30-year-old before he was substituted with 10 minutes to play.

The world's most expensive player had neither scored nor assisted, but Brazil were 2-0 up, with Neymar involved in both goals between nursing his latest bumps and bruises.

With his side still in need of inspiration, Neymar for once found enough space to carry the ball inside the box and ran across the path of Vinicius, whose sharp shot was parried only as far as Richarlison.

That goal settled the nerves ahead of a second, for which Neymar was more facilitator than fenomeno. He simply fed Vinicius, occupying the left-sided position that belongs to Mbappe for France and was once Neymar's in this team. A run and cross found Richarlison, who controlled on his left and acrobatically finished with his right, the ball not touching the ground until it nestled in the net.

Richarlison made way at the same time as Neymar, denied his hat-trick but not the spotlight many had assumed would belong again to Brazil's biggest name.

"Best of all, he is humble," continued Silva's assessment of Neymar.

Humility is perhaps not a quality commonly attributed to the forward by those who do not watch him regularly, but the man who is making PSG tick alongside Mbappe and Lionel Messi is also selfless enough to do the same in this all-star Brazil line-up.

As Richarlison's match-stealing skill sent those yellow-clad supporters home happy, they would do well to remember Neymar's central role in this success, even on an ordinary night by his sky-high standards.