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Cast in the role of hero, Neymar only provides a cameo

HE PUFFED out his cheeks, releasing the strain on lungs full of pent-up breath.

Brazil's poster boy Neymar is challenged by the wily Rafael Marquez, captain of Mexico, last night in their sides' 0-0 draw. Picture: Reuters
Brazil's poster boy Neymar is challenged by the wily Rafael Marquez, captain of Mexico, last night in their sides' 0-0 draw. Picture: Reuters

The tears came quickly with a hand failing to hide the outpouring of emotion from the watching world. Neymar then dropped to the ground, bowing to the emotion of it all.

All this, and more, was not the product of a draining World Cup match but merely the effect of a Brazilian national anthem that threatens to become one of the major set pieces of the tournament.

It is flamboyant, passionate, compelling and a resounding collision between art and human expression. These words, of course, once served as a testimony to the brilliance of Brazilian football.

But this is 2014, not 1970 or even 1958, 1962, 1994 or 2002. The five-time World Cup winners now face frustration in their search for the joy of six. Last night's goalless draw against a competent Mexican team was proof that Brazil has a wonderful football history but is facing a difficult immediate future.

The comparisons to previous world champions may be trite, even unfair. But they are inescapable. A country does not just hope Brazil wins the World Cup. It does not just expect another World Cup triumph. They demand it.

The golden trophy is seen as the birthright of every Brazilian generation. Neymar, 22, slight and with an unmistakably boyish aspect, is the chosen one. He has to lead his country to glory. No wonder he is in tears before a ball is kicked.

The possibilities of Brazil in this World Cup are as yet difficult to gauge precisely. They may gain momentum as the muscles relax. They may not. It is much safer to state that this may be a good Brazilian team, perhaps in time a very good one.

But it is not a great one.

Neymar, cast in the role as the inspirational hero, can only provide cameos. He has a splendidly darting run, an array of tricks and even conjured up a backpost header that was well saved by Guillermo Ochua in the first half. Ochua reprised this piece of fine goalkeeping by blocking a Neymar shot, again at the back post, in the second half.

But this was no siege, no relentless wave of attacks with Neymar surfing effortlessly on a tide of unanswerable fortune. This was hard work. This was not the beautiful game but the merciless reality of competition football where technically adept and well-coached Mexicans showed the sort of resilience their countrymen routinely exhibit in halls in Tijuana or main events at Madison Square Garden.

And as the blows were exchanged, Brazilian eyes focused on Neymar. Already he knows what it is to look expectation straight in the eye. Last night was just another 90 minutes when genius was demanded, brilliance only being accepted reluctantly as a desperately inferior product.

This beast of burden has stalked Neymar since he scored against Japan in the opening match of the under-17 World Cup. Just a boy, but already an idol. A petition for Neymar, at 18, to be included in the Brazil squad for the 2010 World Cup gathered more than 14,000 signatures. One of those scribbles was made by Pele.

The clamour has continued around the youngster. It has been expressed in the roars that accompany his 33 goals in 50 matches. It was raised to higher heights by his goals that led Brazil to the Olympic finals of 2012. But Brazil lost to Mexico then.

Ochua, who also made an instinctive save from Thiago Silva, ensured there was no revenge last night. The Brazilian forward, emotional at the start, battered in the first minute, and occasionally dangerous throughout, became becalmed in an arena that pulsated with a passion that was increasingly laced with desperation.

Mexico offered little in attack beyond shots from outside the area but Brazil, too, were largely harmless. Fred and Jo, a sort of vaudeville act whose comedy acts up front tested the tolerance of Brazilian fans were, in turn, the point man in an attack that was so blunt it could only hope to bludgeon the Mexican defence rather than cut it to pieces in the style of the heroes of the past.

Neymar, in one last defiant thrust, in one moment when he sought to resurrect the spirit of 1970, tried to drive his way through the opposition back line with a minute to go. He was outnumbered.

The tension remains on those boyish shoulders. The stress lies heavily on the team. Brazil will most likely qualify from the group with their last game against Cameroon, the weakest team in the section.

They may even win the World Cup but the demands are already stretching the psychological and physical resources of a group for whom the ultimate triumph in a final next month may feel like relief rather unadulterated joy.

There is, though, the capacity for Brazil to come up short. The tears then will not be restricted to the national anthem but will accompany an outpouring of national grief and recrimination.

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