In the past few months Neymar has been a hotter topic than usual in the Brazilian media. People were invariably analysing his first season at Barcelona and all the controversy surrounding his arrival in Spain. I find it a bit puzzling that Brazilians are so worried. First, Neymar has shown that being the centre of attention for the nation's hopes and dreams is not unbearable. Just consider his excellent display at the dress rehearsal that was the Confederations Cup when he was clearly quite comfortable wearing the feted No. 10 shirt. In that competition, staged in Brazil last year, he scored four times, including two amazing goals with his left foot. He showed everybody he can cope with huge expectations.
Neymar is the greatest player in Brazilian football at the moment but his situation is different from, say, Lionel Messi's. While Argentina are organised around Messi, the Seleção (Brazil national football team's nickname) do not depend so much on his Barcelona team-mate. Of course Neymar is very important for Brazil's chances at this World Cup. A player of his class would be missed by any team. The question here is that Neymar's absence would not change the way Brazil are playing under Luiz Felipe Scolari, while an injury to Messi would certainly have a bigger impact for Argentina.
I was not jumping with joy when Neymar went to Barcelona. It is never a good thing for football in Brazil to see talents go abroad. It was understandable that Neymar wanted to go and test himself in Europe and I felt he was getting too entangled in his commercial commitments in Brazil – focusing more on football could only be good for the then 21-year-old. The first season in Spain would never be easy but one thing that did not please me was the fact he was played out of position at Barcelona.
That Neymar is so much more lethal on the left side should not be a secret and it was certainly one of the reasons he was signed by the Catalan club. That he is a great player does not mean he can play anywhere on the pitch. Whoever has played football professionally knows you should not tinker with a player who excels in a certain sector of the pitch. Some players are comfortable indifferent places but Neymar's correct position is on the left. Unless there is an emergency, I see no point in trying to change where he will be deployed.
Last June, before the Confederations Cup, I saw just how problematic it could be to play Neymar out of position. Brazil struggled against England in a friendly in Rio when Neymar was played off Fred, with Hulk taking his place on the left and Oscar coming in from the right. Brazil looked unbalanced until those three were returned to the places where they had been playing for their clubs the whole season. The message became clear for Brazil but not for Barcelona and I think that has affected Neymar's form this season.
There has been a lot of talk about how the huge sum of money – more than £71m – spent by Barcelona on Neymar could affect his performance on the pitch. I do not think he has been particularly fazed by any of that. The difficulties he encountered were natural for a player who has had to adapt to the much tougher marking in Europe than he was used to in Brazil. You did not see him talking publicly about the controversy surrounding his transfer when Barcelona were accused of tax fraud and admitted to being embarrassed by the saga. Most importantly for Brazil, he did not suffer injuries serious enough for him to arrive at the World Cup unfit.
This season at Barcelona has also been an opportunity for him to grow as a player, to gain a bit more mileage. He will arrive for his first World Cup having faced some of the best players in the world in both La Liga and the Champions League and this is important in the build up to the finals. When I played in the tournament for the first time in 1978 I had not even had the chance to take part in a Copa America.
The World Cup finals will still be a huge occasion for Neymar and he has done a great job in helping the national team win over the supporters again after a tricky few years. The Seleção have been playing a brand of football under Scolari that is pleasing to the fans. They put opponents under pressure and create situations for players like Neymar to decide the match. I remember specifically the Confederations Cup opener against Japan. Neymar had not scored for Brazil for a couple of games and there was a lot of talk about this dry spell. With less than three minutes gone in the first half he hit a thunderous volley from outside the box, the kind of genius shot that Pelé or Rivellino would be proud to do. Then he repeated the trick against Spain in the final.
I have been asked if Brazil should not be built around Neymar a bit more but I think it is not necessary. The Seleção play in a much more compact fashion than, say, Argentina where the abundance of attacking players means they can be more vulnerable at the back.
The important thing is that Neymar knows what this tournament means to Brazilians and I do think he is relishing the challenge.
Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico, is a former Brazilian coach and footballer. Often called the "White Pelé", he is commonly considered one of the most skilled finishers and one of the best passers ever. With 48 goals in 71 official appearances for Brazil, Zico is the fourth highest goalscorer for his national team. He represented them in the 1978, 1982 and 1986 World Cups.