OLIVER HOLT: They looked like favourites with star man Neymar – Brazil will desperately hope he’s OK

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OLIVER HOLT: Brazil has shown that they are favorites against Serbia for a reason, but will HARD hope Neymar is okay…

  • Neymar is still the man who can make the difference in a star-studded team
  • His hopes of a World Cup victory on home soil were ruined by a knee in the back
  • He received more rough treatment in the opening game of the World Cup against Serbia
  • The Brazilian star was hacked down and had his shirt literally ripped off his back
  • Neymar went off after twisting his right ankle after another tough challenge

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A few months ago, Zico, one of the great heroes of Brazilian football and one of his great No. 10s, sat in an upstairs office of his academy in Recreio on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, talking about Qatar’s World Cup .

“We have a great opportunity,” he said. “We have a good team and the youngsters – Vini, Antony and Raphinha – are our great hope.”

He did not mention Neymar. At least not until he was asked. Many analysts of the Brazilian team are like that. Neymar is second only to Pele in goals scored for his country, but Brazilians are struggling to embrace him wholeheartedly.

Neymar is still the man who can make the difference in a star-studded Brazil squad

Neymar is still the man who can make the difference in a star-studded Brazil squad

So when I asked Zico if he was a fan of Neymar, of the current number 10 of the national team, the jewel in the glittering crown of this Brazilian side trying to win the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, he replied, looking at me with something between a grimace and a grin. “From his football, yes,” he said.

Zico is a charming man and a diplomat, so he left the rest unspoken. But if Brazilians have struggled to embrace Neymar in the same way they worshiped Zico, Ronaldo and other modern heroes, it’s because off the pitch he’s still regarded as a dilettante.

He is extremely talented, but the most he has won for his country is Olympic gold in Rio in 2016. This tournament in Qatar represents his best chance to rectify that.

Neymar’s name continued to receive mass approval as he was read out ahead of Brazil’s opening 2-0 win against Serbia on Thursday night. In a team of all talents, a team that is the favorites to win the tournament, Neymar is still the man who can make the difference.

His chances of winning the World Cup on home soil were ruined eight years ago when he was brutally removed from the tournament. A knee to the back in Brazil’s match against Colombia broke one of his vertebrae and forced him to miss the 7-1 semi-final humiliation at the hands of Germany.

Neymar was ruthlessly brought down in the second half by Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelj

Neymar was ruthlessly brought down in the second half by Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelj

Neymar was ruthlessly brought down in the second half by Serbian midfielder Nemanja Gudelj

On Thursday night, he was again at the center of injury.

He got an early taste of rough treatment when Filip Mladenovic ripped the shirt off his back minutes later. Early in the second half, he was ruthlessly brought down by Nemanja Gudelj as he sprinted towards the Serbian defence. Midway through the half, he was the tournament’s most fouled player to date.

Then, late in the game, he twisted his right ankle after another tough challenge. He was substituted and when he took off his boot, the ankle already looked swollen. After the match, Brazil’s team doctor said he suffered “trauma” to the ankle. He said they would have to wait 24 to 48 hours before a full assessment could be made.

Brazil will desperately hope he is okay. Even with Vinicius Jr. dancing on the left, Raphinha dazzling on the right and Richarlison pulling defenders into the center in all directions, Neymar was still the star of the show on Thursday night, at least until the Tottenham striker’s stunning second goal.

Neymar twisted his right ankle after another tough challenge in the second half

Neymar twisted his right ankle after another tough challenge in the second half

Neymar twisted his right ankle after another tough challenge in the second half

Brazil are favorites for a reason, they looked like the favorites and if they win this World Cup and if he is fit to play the rest of their campaign, Neymar will be their leading man. That much is already clear.

It was his mercury skills that forced the breakthrough Brazil craved just after the hour mark. He spun one way than the other in the box, Vinicius hauled in a shot and Richarlison jabbed the rebound.

Richarlison scored it, but Neymar inspired it. While age obscures the light of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar still looks like a player in his prime.

He never quite made it into the same group as Messi, now his teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, or Ronaldo, or even his other PSG teammate, Kylian Mbappé. But if he can lead Brazil to World Cup victory here, Neymar could still rise to the pantheon of the game’s greats.

Neymar's ankle already looked swollen when he took off his boot after being substituted

Neymar's ankle already looked swollen when he took off his boot after being substituted

Neymar’s ankle already looked swollen when he took off his boot after being substituted