A few months ago, Zico, one of the great heroes of Brazilian football and one of its great No 10s, was sitting in an upstairs office at his academy in Recreio on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, talking about the Qatar World Cup.
‘We have a big chance,’ he said. ‘We have a good team and the youngsters — Vini, Antony and Raphinha — are our big hope.’
He did not mention Neymar. Not until he was prompted anyway. A lot of analysts of the Brazil team are like that. Neymar is second only to Pele in goals scored for his country, yet Brazilians struggle to embrace him wholeheartedly.
So when I asked Zico if he was a fan of Neymar, of the current No 10 of the national team, the jewel in the glittering crown of this Brazil side who are trying to win the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, he looked at me with something between a grimace and a grin. ‘Of his football, yes,’ he said.
Zico is a charming man and a diplomat, so he left the rest unsaid. But if Brazilians have struggled to take Neymar to their hearts in the same way they worshipped Zico, Ronaldo and other modern heroes, it is because he is still regarded as something of a dilettante off the pitch.
He is lavishly 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 of putting that right.
Neymar’s name still got a massive roar of approval when it was read out on Thursday night before Brazil’s opening 2-0 win against Serbia. In a team of all the talents, a team who are the favourites to win the tournament, Neymar is still the man who could make the difference.
His chances of winning the World Cup on home soil were ruined eight years ago when he was brutally taken out of the tournament. A knee in the back in Brazil’s match against Colombia broke one of his vertebrae and forced him to miss the 7-1 semi-final humiliation by Germany.
On Thursday night he was at the centre of another injury scare.
He got an early taste of rough treatment when Filip Mladenovic ripped the shirt from his back a few minutes in. At the start of the second half, he was hacked down ruthlessly by Nemanja Gudelj as he sprinted at the Serbia defence. By midway through the half, he was the most fouled player of the tournament so far.
Then, late in the game, he turned his right ankle after another heavy challenge. He was substituted and when he took his boot off the ankle already looked swollen. After the match, the Brazil team doctor said he had suffered a ‘trauma’ to the ankle. He said they would have to wait 24 to 48 hours before a full assessment was possible.
Brazil will desperately hope he is OK. Even with Vinicius Jnr dancing down the left, Raphinha dazzling on the right and Richarlison pulling defenders in all directions down the centre, Neymar was still the star of the show on Thursday night, at least until the Tottenham forward’s stunning second goal.
Brazil are favourites for a reason, they looked like the favourites and if they win this World Cup and if he is fit to play in the rest of their campaign, Neymar will be their leading man. That much is already obvious.
It was his quicksilver skills that forced the breakthrough Brazil were craving just after the hour. He twisted one way then the other in the box, Vinicius lashed in a shot and Richarlison poked in the rebound.
Richarlison scored it but Neymar inspired it. As age dims the light that shines from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar still looks like a player in his prime.
He has never quite made it into the same bracket as Messi, now his team-mate at Paris Saint-Germain, or Ronaldo, or even his other PSG team-mate, Kylian Mbappe. But if he can lead Brazil to World Cup victory here, Neymar may yet ascend to the pantheon of the game’s greats.