Brazil coach defends Neymar ahead of decisive Denmark game
SALVADOR, Brazil (AP) Leave him alone.
Brazil coach Rogerio Micale has leapt to the defense of misfiring star striker Neymar before the decisive game against Denmark at the Olympic football tournament on Wednesday.
With Brazil facing another embarrassing elimination at home, Neymar has come under fire for his poor performances and lack of leadership, but Micale said he deserved respect.
Brazil needs a victory to keep alive its hopes of gold - or even any medal.
''Neymar will become the best player in the world, we need to respect him,'' Micale said. ''He is young. I know that at times he behaves in a way that we may not like, but at his age, wouldn't we do the same things that he does, having everything that he has?''
Micale said the criticism could hurt future generations of Brazilian players who dream of the national soccer team.
''If we don't respect our best players, they might not want to be with us anymore,'' Micale said.
Neymar, one of the biggest stars at the Rio Games, was far from his best when Brazil was held to scoreless draws against South Africa and Iraq, results that left the title favorite in danger of being eliminated in the group stage. Two years ago Brazil was thrashed 7-1 by Germany in the semifinal of the home World Cup.
Neymar, Brazil's captain, was also criticized for not taking a more active role as the one of the team's most experienced players. After Sunday's draw against Iraq, he declined to talk to the media, leaving the younger players to try to explain the team's struggles.
Brazilian fans heckled Neymar during the game against Iraq, chanting the name of women's star Marta, the five-time world player of the year who has been thriving at the women's tournament. This week, many photos surfaced on social media with fans replacing Neymar's name by Marta's on Brazil's jerseys.
''They are two great Brazilian players,'' Micale said. ''Neymar is a young 24-year-old who still hasn't' fully matured. Generally, a player will peak at 28, physically and mentally. Neymar has had to deal with the pressure of being a leader since he was 17 years old.''
Midfielder Renato Augusto said Brazil's struggles at the Olympic tournament have upset Neymar.
''He remains confident, but he is not happy with what has been happening,'' Augusto said. ''He knows of his importance to this group. Everyone is supporting him.''
''We only need a simple victory to reach the next round and remain alive in the fight for a medal,'' Micale said. ''We need to stay calm. We only depend on ourselves.''
Micale said he also relies on the fact that despite not being able to score, Brazil created plenty of opportunities. ''Things will be different when the balls starts going in,'' Micale said.
Brazil may also be able to advance with a draw, but then would rely on the result of the game between South Africa and Iraq, which also play on Wednesday. Brazil and Iraq are tied with two points each, two less than Denmark. If the teams remain level on points, goal differential and head-to-head results, a drawing of lots will determine which nation advances.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni