The controversial image of Neymar nailed to a cross in a recent issue of a Brazilian football magazine stirred up plenty of controversy, not least among religious groups. And while the image – used to illustrate the welter of criticism the Santos tyro has attracted due to a perceived fondness for going to ground – was perhaps over the top, the mental and physical pressure that the player is under to carry both Santos and Brazil to glory is immense.
A good example of this came last week, when after helping the Seleção to a handsome 4-0 win over Japan in Poland on Tuesday, Neymar hot-footed it back across the Atlantic to play – and shine – in Santos’ tough league clash with Atlético Mineiro on Wednesday. The club’s enthusiasm to have their brightest star in action is hardly surprising – due to international call-ups he has now played only eleven Serie A games for Peixe in 2012, compared to seventeen appearances for the Seleção.
Such a punishing schedule will surely take its toll on Neymar sooner rather than later. But more worrying still is the psychological pressure that the youngster must endure, particularly when playing for Brazil. With much of the country’s more experienced attacking talent – including such luminaries as Adriano, Luís Fabiano, Robinho and Ronaldinho Gaúcho – gone either to seed or off the rails entirely, the weight of almost 200 million expectant souls presses relentlessly down on Neymar’s slender shoulders.
Which is where another player who has experienced more than a little religious strife of his own comes in. Kaká is well known for his devout Christian beliefs, though the player was forced to split from the often shadowy Renascer church back in 2010. His recent return to the Brazil side, however, might just mean that all Neymar’s prayers have been answered.
Things have gone swimmingly so far, with a goal in the cakewalk against Iraq followed by another, and a starring role, in the much more revealing win over Japan. On both occasions, Kaká displayed plenty of that mixture of guile and power that made him such an iconic figure both in Europe and for the Seleção – his goal against Japan, scampering forward 20 yards or more before clipping home, was like a slightly slow-motion version of the Kaká of five years ago. “We play with more personality with him in the team,” Mano Menezes said afterwards.
Which is not to say that Kaká is ready to return to his thrilling pomp. Age and injury have hit hard, and the player has lost much of the pace that was always so vital to his thrusting, counter-attacking game. But even if this is Kaká redux, he brings something that is perhaps more important – a little help lifting the load, both physical and mental, from Neymar’s skinny frame.
Without Kaká in the side, and with all due respect to Leandro Damiâo, Lucas, Hulk et al, all eyes are on Neymar (although the recent stepping up the plate of Oscar has helped a great deal). He is continually tightly marked, bullied physically, and goaded into shows of petulance. Even more pressure comes from his own countrymen and women – media and fans alike analyse every move and expect greatness with every swivel of the hips. The weight of expectation is crushing.
With Kaká, there is another significant name on the team sheet to raise opposition eyebrows. Another slightly faded, but still high profile, threat to think about. And Kaká – unlike other recent reclamation projects such as Ronaldinho and Luis Fabiano – is a cool head, a steadying influence, and highly tactically disciplined. In short, he is the ideal figure to take some of the pressure off what is a talented, but remarkably youthful, Brazil side.
Just where he will fit in the team will be interesting to watch. Against Japan, he started on Neymar’s favoured left side, as, in the absence of Leandro Damiâo, the Santos will-o-the-wisp played more centrally than usual as that most mythical of beasts, the false nine. But if Menezes is to employ a strong physical presence up front, as he surely will, then Neymar will return to the left, leaving Kaká´s position unclear, especially with his heir apparent, Oscar, a seemingly immoveable object in the middle. Perhaps one option would be to shift Oscar out to the right at the expense of Hulk, so creating more space in the centre. Though given the pleasing tactical fluidity that Brazil displayed against Japan, talk of such fixed roles may be a little redundant.
Two friendly victories do not a World Cup summer make, and there will be stiffer tests ahead than Iraq and Japan. But Menezes seems to have already made up his mind that Kaká has a big part to play in Brazil´s future (perhaps thinking that Ricky might help him bear his own crosses up the hill). “He’s back, and just as good as we’d hoped,” he crowed after last week’s game.
By James Young
James blog can be found here