The most telling sign that Brazil are in a better place going into this World Cup than they were last time comes when judging their reliance on Neymar.
Four years ago, he seemed – and, in the end, proved he was – indispensable to Brazil’s hopes of lifting the trophy in their own backyard.
He was injured a few minutes from the end in their 2-1 quarter-final win over Colombia. Juan Camilo Zuniga planted a knee in Neymar’s back, fracturing one of his vertebrae. In that moment, Brazil’s light was extinguished. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the semi-final against Germany.
What felt like paroxysms of grief overwhelmed the nation even before kick-off. The Brazil team partook in one of the most misguided acts in sporting history when walking out for the semi-final carrying Neymar’s shirt. Even manager Luiz Felipe Scolari wore a cap with “Forza Neymar” on it. The Germans arched their eyebrows at this ridiculous carnival of pity and thumped Brazil 7-1.
But that was then and this is now. Neymar is, if anything, a far better player than four years ago. How could he fail to be several years down the line?
In 2014 he was callow if brilliant. Now 26, he is approaching his peak. He has since become a European club champion with Barcelona, scoring in the 3-1 win over Juventus in the 2015 final. He is also the world’s costliest player having joined Paris Saint-Germain for £200 million 12 months ago.
A foot injury, sustained three months ago, threatened his involvement in this latest World Cup. But he has recovered. He might even benefit from the enforced rest after years on the treadmill for club and country. He scored his 55th international goal in Brazil’s 3-0 warm-up win over Austria on Sunday. Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho were also on the scoresheet.
The presence of Jesus, the exciting young Manchester City forward, and also Coutinho, Neymar’s replacement at Barcelona, is a reminder of just how strong the current Brazil team are. They have gone from being roundly viewed as the worst Brazil side to contest a World Cup to one more than befitting the famous yellow jersey.
If the last World Cup was the one when everyone willed him to excel, this time Neymar is more likely to live up to his reputation. It is a lot easier to run when you are not burdened with the hopes of more than 200 million people.
Of course, he still does bear significant responsibility. But he is not alone, as he was last time out when an already limited Brazil side, shorn of his talent, crashed off course in historic manner. Even if terrible fate befalls Neymar and he is injured again, or cannot reach the fitness levels required after a lengthy spell of inactivity, Brazil are supplemented by others who can help them prevail.
While Jesus was Brazil’s top scorer in qualifying, he faces competition from Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino. Chelsea’s Willian and Juventus’ Douglas Costa are also on hand. Shahktar Donetsk’s Taison provides another option.
Unusually for Brazil, they go to a World Cup minus a plodding, disliked and distinctly average centre-forward. This is a tradition going back as far as 1982 at least. Serginho, reckoned to be the antithesis to all that was good about a Brazil side represented so dynamically and artistically by players such as Socrates and Zico, started every game in Spain.
But it is Fred who remains, perhaps, the nadir in Brazil strikers. Now 34, he is currently winding down his career with Cruzeiro. He enraged a nation in 2014. Or at least Scolari did by playing him. So without an obvious scapegoat and plenty of willing, and talented, supporting stars, the re-birth of Brazil under manager Tite, who has lost only once in 21 games since taking over, could be genuinely thrilling to observe only four years on from their darkest moment in Belo Horizonte. Another factor in helping liberate Brazil is playing so far away from the suffocating environment of home. They are based in the Black Sea port of Sochi.
Neymar has space to breathe. “Skill wise, he is already the best player in the world,” no lesser authority than Pele has said, before Brazil’s opening game against Switzerland on Sunday. “This is his time to shine.”
He has a better chance of doing so knowing it is not all down to him.