Things weren't looking good for him. Photos circulated in which Neymar had peeled his right foot out of the shoe without showing socks - and was standing with a badly swollen ankle. The face contorted in pain. When he dropped onto the substitutes' bench shortly before the end of the game after being substituted, he pulled his jersey over his head. Pain, fear, desperation - what was going on inside him? For example the thought: me again, again at a World Cup? From the dream?
The game plan was perfect for someone like him: Neymar da Silva Santos Junior was the last world-class star of this Winter World Cup in Qatar to play in Doha's Lusail Stadium on Thursday evening. After Cristiano Ronaldo, after Lionel Messi and after his club colleague at Paris St. Germain, Kylian Mbappé. So the stage was set for the Brazilian: 88,103 spectators in the largest World Cup arena, which by the way will also be the venue for the final on December 18th.
So maybe the appearance of the exceptional 30-year-old player against Serbia was a fitting starting point for a big mission. Despite being significantly younger than the other two players who have defined football in recent decades - Ronaldo 37, Messi 35 - he has already said he will not be seen again in the 2026 title fights. So it's the last chance for the really big hit, which is still missing in the collection of titles.
World Cups and Neymar, so far only fit together to a limited extent. In 2014, he put in a strong performance to lead the team to the semi-finals at the tournament on home soil, only to miss the 7-1 draw against Germany after a brutal foul by Colombia's Juan Camilo Zúniga the previous game. And four years ago in Russia, until he was eliminated in the quarter-finals, he attracted far less attention with spectacular dribbles and famous goals than with a strange epilepsy. It's the two extremes that Neymar consistently embodies in his game.
That's why he's not loved by everyone in Brazil. The fact that he also supported southpaw Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential election did not bring him unlimited sympathy.
But there was no sign of that at the first World Cup appearance in 2022. On the contrary: When the line-up was announced 25 minutes before kick-off, the fans in the arena cheered the man with number 10 as if they wanted to give him the last push for the coup from the stands. They knew that the sixth title they were aiming for could only be something for their country if Neymar could match his best performances. And that in every game.
In the first half, however, he was still a long way off against aggressive Serbs. A foul on him after 5.30 minutes was acknowledged by the spectators with whistles and by the referee with an early yellow card for Strahinja Pavlovic. He took the first corner for his team directly on goal, so that keeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic had to intervene decisively. Add to that some strong dribbling and that was it.
But maybe he had just saved it all for the second half. Because it provided the best entertainment - with the superstar in the middle: First he came to the goal with a train, was fouled by Nemanja Gudelj and received a free kick from 18 meters, which he put into the wall. Then, at the last second, he was blocked from a shot on goal. And then he saw a post bang from his colleague Alex Sandro.
He initiated the well-deserved and overdue leadership at this point in time. He passed to Vinicius Junior, whose shot saved Milinkovic-Savic, but let it rebound: Richarlison was spot on and finished in the best position to make it 1-0, which seemed like a liberation for the fans (63'). The Tottenham winger then proved ten minutes later that he also mastered the very fine blade: he skilfully took a cross out of the air, put the ball in front of himself, turned and hammered it volley into the Serbs' box: a world-class goal.
So Richarlison was the name of the star of the Brazilians' first appearance, not Neymar, who played more for the team and for whom it was over after 79 minutes: he was substituted, had to be substituted. It was no longer the plan to catch up with his 75 goals to record goalscorer Pelé, who scored 77 times for his country. Neymar's right foot buckled after a foul by Pavlovic. Tears welled up in his eyes as he was treated off the pitch. According to his teammates, he was immediately treated in the dressing room. "I hope it's nothing serious," said defender Alex Sandro.
An exact diagnosis was still pending late Thursday evening. Coach Tite gave the all-clear: “We are confident that he can continue playing at this World Cup. He will continue this World Cup.” According to team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar, he may have sprained his right ankle. “We started treatment straight away while he was still on the bench. And we continued the treatment in the cabin,” reported the doctor: “We now have to wait 24 to 48 hours before we can say more. We don't have an MRI appointment yet.”