Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters
Casemiro had a confession. “Sometimes I feel sorry for our opponents,” the Manchester United Brazilian midfielder said last week. “We have many good players.” Considering he wasn’t bragging or exaggerating, but simply being sincere, it may come as a surprise that Casemiro’s coach Tite, his teammate Marquinhos and Tite’s assistant César Sampaio devoted the majority of a briefing to 40 minutes for the media on Sunday discussing a sidelined striker.
No prizes for guessing the man is Neymar, with question after question focused on how Brazil will fare without him against Switzerland on Monday and how to replace a Paris Saint-Germain striker with 75 goals in 122 games for his country.
Tite used a lot of words to avoid, endearingly and eruditely, answering both questions. “We’ve already decided on the starting players, but we’ll only let them know shortly before the match,” said the coach, who could not offer any timescales on when Neymar might return from an ankle ligament injury, but expressed confidence that the Cup of the player’s World was not Above. “Football is about context and sometimes we have to be strategic. We have to think outside the box, but we are very confident we have the right replacement.”
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Seated next to him, Marquinhos repeatedly referred to his manager as “the professor”. Tite, however, kept much of his wisdom to himself. He simply smiled when asked if Newcastle’s versatile and gifted midfielder Bruno Guimarães could fill Neymar’s No10 role between Raphinha and Vinícius Júnior, and close behind Richarlison.
Tite was more forthcoming when asked whether referees should offer more protection to Neymar, who was injured after a heavy challenge from Nikola Milenkovic during the 2-0 Group G win against Serbia. “If you want to celebrate football you have to pay attention to fouls,” said the 61-year-old. “They target specific players and that’s the effect. He must be stopped ”.
Many Brazilian fans want to see Real Madrid’s 21-year-old forward prodigy Rodrygo fill the void left by Neymar, but others would like Lucas Paquetá from midfield.
“We can’t stop talking about Neymar,” Casemiro said. “It’s just how important it is to us. He is our greatest player, the difference for us, but we also have many other very good players. Rodrygo, for example, lights up the eyes and delights all who see him play.”
Having selected a hugely attacking starting XI against Serbia, Tite could become a little more conservative at Stadium 974. While Brazil remain big favourites, Switzerland have managed to stop the five-time World Cup winners on the 1-1 in the opening match of Russia 2018.
Their coach, Murat Yakin, possesses top-level talent such as, among others, creative catalyst Xherdan Shaqiri, midfield defender Granit Xhaka and Yaoundé-born striker Breel Embolo, author of the 1-0 victory against Cameroon Thursday .
Even if Embolo isn’t in Neymar’s league, it’s easy to find a player who runs his own charitable foundation helping Swiss refugees and underprivileged children in Cameroon infinitely more appealing than Brazil’s talisman. Many Brazilians have been outraged by Neymar’s very public support for the country’s far-right, polarizing and outgoing president, Jair Bolsonaro.
The opinions of those who argue that Tite’s team is often more balanced without Neymar, who has promised to dedicate his first Qatar 2022 goal to Bolsonaro, are often colored as much by politics as by tactics. “Neymar doesn’t deserve it,” Casemiro retorted. “He has a big heart.”
Tite, meanwhile, has expressed regret that Danilo is also nursing an injured ankle. The coach declined to identify the Juventus defender’s replacement – although the return of 39-year-old Dani Alves at right-back is widely expected – and indicated that some caution might be needed against Switzerland.
“They are different from Serbia,” he said. “They have very intelligent midfield players and forwards; we can still play in attack but in a different way”.
Once Sampaio began to speak, the narrative resumed a familiar theme. “Neymar is an amazing talent, obviously,” said Tite’s assistant. “But we can count on our other players; they are truly a gift to football. Neymar is the protagonist but often, as we see in the movies, someone who is not the protagonist steals the show”.
Marquinhos agreed. “We wish we could have Neymar and Danilo with us,” said the PSG defender. “But the professor can confirm that the talented players we have will maintain our level. Switzerland will give us a hard time, but we can still secure our place in the round of 16.”