AFP -Brazil should have been gearing up for another major home sporting spectacle with renewed optimism that star forward Neymar would help bring to an end a 12-year trophy drought.
But instead, the Selecao’s golden boy is dominating the build-up to a tournament he will miss due to an ankle injury for all the wrong reasons.
Neymar is embroiled in a rape scandal in which he has been accused of forcing himself on a model he met through social media in a hotel room in the French capital, where he plys his club trade for Paris Saint-Germain.
It’s tarnished the festive atmosphere of South America’s footballing showpiece with an ugly affair that shows no sign of going away, despite Najila Trindade Mendes de Souza’s rapidly unraveling case.
It all blew up on June 2 when Neymar published a seven-minute video on Instagram, where he had first been in contact with Trindade, revealing that he had been accused of rape.
The scandal quickly snowballed and three days later, after a senior Brazilian federation official had said he would “bet” that Neymar would pull out of the Copa, the PSG forward injured ankle ligaments in a 2-0 friendly victory over tournament invitees Qatar.
Even so, Brazil’s ability to concentrate on the task at hand has been hampered by the Neymar rape soap opera.
After the debacle of Brazil’s 7-1 semi-final humbling at the hands of Germany in their home World Cup five years ago, and the fall out from the huge amount of money wasted on hosting both the global football showpiece and the Olympics in the space of two years, the country could have done without such a sordid affair.
– ‘It’s a shame’ –
Coach Tite insists that Brazil are still in fine fettle ahead of the tournament, which they haven’t won since 2007 when a team inspired by former Real Madrid and AC Milan forward Robinho outclassed Lionel Messi’s Argentina 3-0 in the final.
Tite admitted Neymar would be missed, saying “it’s a shame to not have one of the three best players in the world.”
“After Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s comparable only to (Eden) Hazard, with one advantage: he’s quicker. That’s the player we’re missing,” said Tite last week.
But he said that rather than reflect on what they’re missing, “inside the squad we’re much more focussed on working hard, training well, preparing for matches, which has been our main focus.”
The Selecao’s last warm-up match was a 7-0 thrashing of 10-man Honduras in which Neymar’s absence certainly wasn’t felt, with his substitute David Neres scoring in the rout.
Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino also got in amongst the goals while Everton’s Richarlison provided several assists.
“We’re in good shape, confident, because we played well in both friendlies,” Jesus told Sport TV.
The hosts open the tournament in Sao Paulo on Friday against Bolivia, winners on home soil in 1963.
– ‘Clear game plan’ –
With Neymar out, the tournament’s biggest star will be Messi, who at 31 is running out of time to finally land a major international honor with Argentina.
He has been on the losing side in three finals, including the last two against Chile, and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when Germany triumphed.
They warmed up for the tournament in similar style to Brazil, thumping Nicaragua 5-1 in a friendly with Messi, recently named the world’s highest paid sportsman, bagging a brace.
“We showed a clear game plan and in-form players,” said coach Lionel Scaloni, who brings a young and inexperienced squad to Brazil, despite the presence of Barcelona’s Messi, Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria of Paris Saint-Germain.
“With the forwards we have and our defensive solidity, we’re going wage war in the Copa.”
Two-time reigning champions Chile, who beat Argentina on penalties in 2015 and the one-off Centenario tournament in the United States in 2016, will have their work cut out to claim a hat-trick of titles.
Star forward Alexis Sanchez, known as the “Nino Maravilla” or wonder kid, at home has been in poor form for the last 18 months since moving to Manchester United from Arsenal, although Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal had a strong finish to the club season.
Chile are in a tough group C alongside record 15-time winners Uruguay and guests Japan, competing for the second time after a poor showing in 1999 when they failed to win a match.
Qatar are the other invitees, for the first time, in the 12-team tournament — a significant opportunity for the newly crowned Asian champions ahead of hosting the next World Cup in 2022.
Their Spanish coach Felix Sanchez has described this as a “significant step in our journey towards the World Cup”.