One of the most notable traits of this tournament has been how it has brought individuals into the foreground again after a series of World Cups in which the team has been preeminent.
Lionel Messi is dragging Argentina forward almost single-handedly. Arjen Robben’s pace has been at the heart of everything the Netherlands have done well, while the form of Karim Benzema has been the main reason for France’s fine start to the World Cup. It’s not quite accurate to term the quarterfinal match between Brazil and Colombia in Fortaleza (live, Friday, 4 p.m. ET) "Neymar versus James Rodriguez," the tournament’s two outstanding 22-year-olds, but it’s not far off.
The moment of the World Cup so far came in Belo Horizonte in the Round of 16 as Neymar stepped up to take his penalty bearing the weight of a nation’s expectations. The collective holding of breath was almost palpable. Even those skeptical about the cult of Neymar must have felt a pang of sympathy for him; miss that, suffer the disappointment of his nation and the damage to his career could have been catastrophic. But Neymar, as he has throughout the tournament, stood up to the pressure and took an icily cool penalty, stuttering his run up and waiting for Chile’s goalkeeper Claudio Bravo to commit before rolling the ball the other way.
And yet there is a doubt about Neymar, a sense he has been too central to Brazil. As Tostao, the great forward of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winners and now a doctor and columnist, "Brazil have two strategies: number one, give it to Neymar; number two give it to Neymar." Close him down, as Chile did in the second half of the last-16 game, and Brazil can look extremely ordinary.
In the opening game, against Croatia, the sense was that Neymar was rather too desperate to live up to the hype, that he was demanding the ball in a way that had become inhibiting, and that Brazil looked a rather better side on the odd occasion that Oscar imposed himself. But since then, Oscar has faded to oblviion. With Fred and Jo taking it in turns to galumph about ineffectively up front, and Hulk toiling on the right, it’s become increasingly apparent that Neymar has to take responsibility for every attack because nobody else can. All that means more pressure on Neymar, but he has no doubts about his ability nor that of his teammates.
"I do not feel burdened with the obligation to be the highlight," Neymar said on Wednesday. "I have colleagues who help me. Some win the ball, others give passes, others score goals. We are a team. It’s not about one player. Here the important thing is that Brazil is champion."
Just as this could be Neymar’s World Cup, it might also be James Rodriguez’s. Strange as it may seem for a player who moved for €45million last summer, he has been the real breakout star of the tournament so far. That’s possibly in part a reflection of Monaco’s position as a nouveau riche club yet to attract the exposure to match its extreme wealth, but he has also produced a series of maturely brilliant performances that have completed his transition from promising talent, to bona fide star.
The oddity is that, for Colombia, this was expected to be Radamel Falcao’s World Cup and many wrote it off when the forward, also of Monaco, was ruled out with knee ligament damage. It’s probably a stretch to say Colombia have benefited from his absence, but it did lessen expectation — and thus circumvented the kind of collapse they suffered in 1994 — and it may also had added a greater fluidity to it’s attacking style. Although Rodriguez, operating behind Teofilo Gutierrez, has emerged as the star as the tournament has gone on, he is not a pre-designated leader as Falcao would have been. Colombia also has Jackson Martinez and Juan Quintero playing well on the flanks, with Pablo Armero tearing forward from left back. There is a variety and balance to Colombia’s attacking, no sense of giving it to Rodriguez, then giving it to Rodriguez.
”It’s not easy to achieve what I’ve done, but my view is that when you have a dream and you really pursue it and picture things like this happening, then it can become a reality,” Rodriguez told FIFA.com on Thursday. ”If you want something and you work hard for it, then it can happen.”
Rodriguez should benefit from the suspension to Luiz Gustavo, denying Brazil its one truly defensive holding midfielder. Neymar, meanwhile, will be up against the powerful Carlos Sanchez, an anchor nicknamed "the Rock" who has looked impressive as the more defensive foil for Abel Aguilar at the back of Colombia’s midfield, although as he acknowledges, Brazil will be by far the biggest test Colombia has faced. "Neymar is a world star but we can’t only talk about him," he said. "Brazil have many stars. Our performances have been very good and Brazil has not played at its best."
And one of the reasons for that is that Neymar has been the only star. It’s a mark of how far Colombia has come that it goes into this quarterfinal with more potential match-winners than Brazil.
”I don’t know who will play better, I just hope that Brazil comes out on top,” Neymar said, referring to his duel with Rodriguez. ”I’ve already said before the World Cup started that I don’t care about being the best player or the top scorer, all I want is to win the title. If I don’t play well but Brazil wins, I’ll still be happy.”