Heading into Copa America, Brazil's focus is off the field
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil will get to play a major soccer tournament on home soil for second time in five years, and Neymar will again be the focus of the country's national team but for a very different reason.
Ahead of the 2014 World Cup, Neymar was considered to be one of the best players in the world and the one who could erase the horrible memories of the 1950 tournament, when host Brazil lost to Uruguay at the iconic Maracana Stadium in the final match — a game known as the Maracanazo.
Neymar, however, was injured in the quarterfinals and missed the semifinals in 2014, when Brazil was handed a devastating 7-1 loss by eventual champion Germany at the Mineirao.
This time, with the Copa America starting on June 14 in Sao Paulo, Neymar is still one of the best forwards in the world but he is also facing an allegation of rape.
That has many talking about Neymar's off-the-field issues rather than his quality on it. During a recent news conference in the buildup to the Copa America, 18 of the 25 questions directed at Brazil coach Tite were about Neymar.
Tite didn't want to talk about the case, but he was eager to praise Neymar as a man.
"What I can say to you is that I've been with Neymar for three years and in personal matters, between me and him, he is loyal and truthful," Tite said.
At the end of last month, a woman told Sao Paulo police that Neymar raped her on May 15 at a hotel in Paris. Neymar responded by publishing a seven-minute Instagram video in which he denied any wrongdoing.
Aside from Neymar and the issues surrounding him, the national team is facing pressure to win its first continental title since 2007. In the last two tournaments, Brazil was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
"This is not for us to play well, this is for us to win," said goalkeeping coach Claudio Taffarel, the starting keeper when Brazil won the 1994 World Cup.
Tite, whose support among the fans has been deteriorating quickly, has faced criticism for leaving striker Lucas Moura and midfielder Fabinho off the Copa America squad. Both recently played in the Champions League final, Fabinho with Liverpool and Moura with Tottenham.
Other players that did make the squad have struggled.
Midfielder Philippe Coutinho had a poor season at Barcelona, while striker Gabriel Jesus sat on the bench for almost the entire season at Manchester City.
Marcelo, who played left back at last year's World Cup, has struggled recently for both the national team and Real Madrid and was left off the squad. He will be replaced either by 33-year-old Filipe Luis or Alex Sandro, while Dani Alves, now 36 and still a likely starter at right back, is still in the team.
And then there is Neymar.
His diving at the last World Cup was more talked about than his goals, and he has reinjured the right foot that bothered him ahead of the tournament in Russia.
The last time Brazil hosted the Copa America was in 1989, with Romario and Bebeto leading the way. The Brazilians beat Uruguay 1-0 in the final at the Maracana, with Romario scoring the goal.
A year later, the same base of players lost to an Argentina team led by Diego Maradona in the last 16 of the 1990 World Cup.