Soccer

Neymar the one to watch at Confederations Cup

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BRASILIA, Brazil (AP)

Inside and outside Brazil, it's Neymar who fans want to watch.

Still only 21 years old but already a budding ''pop star'' off the field with a blockbuster move to Barcelona on it, the Brazil striker will be the focus of the football world's attention starting Saturday when the hosts open the Confederations Cup against Japan.

But Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazil coach who led the country's national team to its fifth World Cup title in 2002 and is back for a second spell in charge, is playing down Neymar's influence on the ''Selecao.''

''He's not going to play with 11 jerseys on his back. He plays with one jersey,'' Scolari said Friday, ahead of the team's final practice at the National Stadium. ''I have nothing to demand from him.''

Both Neymar and the national team as a whole have come under heavy criticism in Brazil with the World Cup less than one year away.

Neymar, whose excellence with local club Santos has earned him a chance to play alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona next season, hasn't scored in his last nine domestic and international matches.

That's not all that much for most strikers, but most strikers aren't considered to be the next Pele.

''He has the same (job to do) as Fred, as Julio Cesar, as Luis Gustavo, as Paulinho,'' Scolari said, rattling off some of the team's other outfield players, and a goalkeeper. ''He's just the same as anyone else.''

Scolari talked at length about his desire to see Neymar as a team player. Depending on how you interpret Scolari's words, it could have been a critical assessment of the striker's ability, or it could have been a compliment to Neymar's ability to fit in with the team.

''The more he plays as a team player, the better he will become,'' Scolari said. ''We have to remove the pressure that he has to score goals. He has to be useful as a team player. He has to be important for the national team being a team player.''

On Thursday, Neymar defended his play with the national team, saying it is ''obvious'' that he can't be the same player with Brazil as he has been with Santos.

''I'm playing the same way as I always play, I didn't change that at all,'' Neymar said. ''But's it's more difficult to play in the national team than it was with Santos. I had more space there, that doesn't happen against other national teams.''

Neymar has had success with Brazil, but at the under-20 level when he won the South American championship in 2011. With the senior team later that year, Brazil was eliminated from the Copa del Rey in the quarterfinals.

Neymar also had a chance for glory at last year's London Olympics, playing for Brazil as, arguably, the best player at the age-restricted tournament. Brazil made the final, but lost to Mexico and had to settle for a silver medal.

Brazil is the defending champion at the Confederations Cup, an eight-team tournament designed to serve as a warm-up event for the next World Cup host.

Four years ago in South Africa, however, Brazil had little to prove at the tournament. This time, the Confederations Cup is nearly as much a test for Brazil's national team as it is for the country's national infrastructure.

And failure to claim a fourth Confederations Cup title could be the end of Scolari as coach, and it certainly won't help Neymar's image much either.

But Scolari is urging calm, no matter the final score on June 30 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.

''We have to protect our idols,'' Scolari said. ''Neymar is not just my idol, he's an idol for all of Brazil.''



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