This time around, things should be different. Vinicius, a few months on from scoring the winning goal in a Champions League final, is surging, European soccer’s breakout star. His teammates and his nation have rallied around him in the aftermath of the racist abuse he has received in Spain for having the temerity to celebrate his goals; several fans had made their way to the Stade Océane to urge him to keep dancing.
He is not alone. Brazil’s attacking resources run so deep that Tite did not even have to call up Gabriel Jésus and Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal’s forwards, for his squad; he could afford to introduce Rodrygo, Vinicius’s Real Madrid teammate, with just a couple of minutes to go. Roberto Firmino did not even make it off the bench. For what may be the first time in his international career, Neymar does not need to feel that everything hinges on him.
Perhaps his performance, then, can be explained by a newfound sense of freedom. Perhaps he is playing unfettered by the suffocating pressure that he has carried for so long. Perhaps, on what may be the strongest team that Brazil has boasted since 2002 — a team, certainly, more than capable of ending the country’s wait — he feels more comfortable, more capable of expressing himself.
Whatever the reason, his display against Ghana was that of a man neither willing nor ready to vacate center stage. It would have been enough that he created two of Brazil’s three goals, both of them finished off by Richarlíson — Marquinhos scored the other, a thunderous header from a corner — but that was the reward for, rather than the total of, everything he did.
Neymar, it is fair to say, looks different this season. He has now registered 11 goals and 10 assists in 12 games for club and country, a streak of form that makes it feel somehow deeply strange that roughly two months ago, not only did P.S.G. appear willing to sell him, but nobody seemed desperately keen to buy the most expensive player in the sport’s history.
The raw numbers, as ever, are merely an illustration. There has been a sharpness, a poise and, perhaps most encouraging of all, an invention to Neymar over the past couple of months. Tite has said that he is “flying,” his “speed and execution in perfection sync.” Even Thierry Henry, habitually unimpressed, feels he has “come to tell everyone: Don’t forget me.”