Brazil coach Rogerio Micale rallied round under-fire captain Neymar on Tuesday after two goalless draws left the Olympic hosts perilously close to another humiliating exit on home soil.
Micale’s men need to beat Group A leaders Denmark in Salvador on Wednesday to guarantee their place in the quarter-finals, after being booed off in consecutive stalemates against South Africa and Iraq.
Amazingly, Brazil’s fate could even come down to the drawing of lots with Iraq, who play South Africa, if both final group matches end in a draw by the same scoreline.
Barcelona’s Neymar has attracted fierce criticism, with his lacklustre and petulant displays being compared with Marta, the Brazilian women’s five-time World Player of the Year, who has dazzled in leading the hosts into the quarter-finals with a game to spare.
Twitter was awash with the hashtage “Neymar out, Marta in”, and a picture of a boy wearing a Brazil shirt with Neymar’s name scrubbed out and Marta written in pen underneath went viral.
However, Micale highlighted the seven-year age gap between the two for Marta’s greater maturity, and insisted Neymar will eventually depose Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to become the world’s best player.
“We can say that Marta is a sensational player, (she) has all our recognition, but Neymar has my recognition as the future best player in the world,” said Micale.
“We need to respect Neymar. He’s young. I know that at times he acts in a way we do not want, but at his age, would we not do the same things he does?”
‘A belly or a bum’
Neymar’s refusal to address the media after the Iraq debacle provoked renewed doubts over his suitability to captain the national team.
The 24-year-old missed Brazil’s final two Games at last year’s Copa America after being sent off in just his second competitive match as captain against Colombia.
But Micale said Brazil need to reflect on the state of the national game rather debating whether to strip Neymar of the captaincy.
The five-time world champions are still searching for the way forward after the humiliating 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat to Germany on home soil two years ago.
“As we get worried about stripping the captaincy, people’s behaviour and relationships and do not have an open discussion to really understand what’s going on tactically, we will continue down the same round looking for scapegoats,” he said.
“Germany put a project in place for 12 years. We want to reach the final six months without going through another 11-and-a-half years.”
Manchester City’s new £27 million ($36 million, 32.2 million euros) signing Gabriel Jesus has also endured a nightmare tournament, missing gilt-edged chances in both games and insists he doesn’t care how Brazil go through as long as they finally find the net.
“We have a huge battle on Wednesday and we have to win whatever way possible. It doesn’t matter if the goal goes in off a belly or a bum.”
Argentina also have to win to avoid an early exit against Honduras in Brasilia on Wednesday.
Germany may need to rack up the goals against Pacific islanders Fiji. The world champions will be assured of progress should they win by at least five goals, with group leaders Mexico and South Korea facing off in the other game in Group C.
Nigeria and Portugal are the only two sides to have already sealed their place in the quarter-finals.