Serbia midfielder Nemanja Matic, left, tackled Philippe Coutinho on Wednesday in Brazil’s 2-0 victory at the World Cup in Moscow.
MOSCOW — It was Philippe Coutinho’s birthday a few days before Brazil’s first game of this World Cup. To celebrate, his teammates gave him a cake. Or, rather, they gave him the ingredients for one.
As Coutinho lounged on the turf with a couple of others at Brazil’s training facility in Sochi, Russia, Neymar put his fingers to his lips and tiptoed up behind his teammate. He waited a moment, nodded, then proceeded, with his accomplices, to cover a helpless Coutinho in eggs, flour and water.
As Coutinho — 26 that day — reacted in mock indignation, Neymar buckled with laughter. Coutinho learned an important lesson, one that he has heeded in Russia thus far, one that may be the key to Brazil winning a sixth World Cup. From then on, Coutinho has made sure not to let Neymar out of his sight.
The friendship between Brazil’s No. 10 and No. 11 is genuine and longstanding, dating to their time representing the country’s under-16 team at a youth tournament in Barcelona, Spain.
Though both were considered prodigies at their clubs — Coutinho at Vasco da Gama, Neymar at Santos — their paths had not crossed until then. In Coutinho’s retelling, they clicked immediately, as players and as people.
“We had a lot of fun,” he has said. Their careers soon diverged, and so, for a while, did their prospects — Coutinho toiled for recognition in Europe as Neymar, still in Brazil, blossomed into the country’s golden boy — but they have always been close.
Sufficiently so, in fact, that last summer, when Barcelona feared Neymar was about to leave for Paris St.-Germain, the club floated the possibility of signing Coutinho in the hope it would persuade him to stay. It did not work. When Neymar arrived in Paris, instead, he asked his new employer if it might like to sign his old friend, too. (That did not come off, either: Coutinho went to Barcelona, theoretically as Neymar’s replacement, in January.)
Their friendship is, however, a slightly curious match. Neymar is an incorrigible extrovert, a fashion icon and a marketing phenomenon. His is a world of private jets and lavish parties: The celebration his club threw for his birthday earlier this year reportedly went on for three days.
Brazil midfielder Paulinho, right, celebrated with Neymar, top, Gabriel Jesus, left, and Philippe Coutinho after scoring on Wednesday against Serbia.CreditFrancisco Leong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
He lives in Paris surrounded by his tois, as the group of half a dozen friends employed to various spurious roles in his entourage, is known. They are there to cater to his every whim; he is a Hollywood player with a Hollywood life.
Coutinho, by contrast, is a quiet, shy, reserved sort of a character. While playing at Liverpool, his most frequent social engagements were barbecues with the club’s other Latin-American players. He married his childhood sweetheart, Aine. There is no entourage, other than his family: two children and two dogs.
One, in other words, is a superstar by inclination, the other by obligation. That has been reflected, over the years, in the images they project, and in the roles they have played, initially for Brazil’s youth teams and now, on the greatest stage of all, for the senior Selecao. Neymar is front and center; Coutinho has always existed a little in the wings.
It suits them both, you sense: Neymar revels in the spotlight. To watch him is to experience a player who does not just catch the eye, but demands it.
There is a moment, played out time and again over the course of 90 minutes, that is pure, uncut Neymar: He receives possession, with his marker by his side. He rolls the ball under his foot. He swivels his hips, and as he does so, he slows down: to a crawl, then to a standstill. And then he waits.
So much of soccer now is movement; stillness is unusual. It only lasts a beat, but it is enough, enough to make sure everyone in the stadium, everyone at home, is looking at him and at his command, at his mercy, waiting to find out what he will do. That is when Neymar is most himself: when the whole world is hanging on his next move.
Coutinho is no exception. He has previously described Neymar as the “mirror” of the player he would like to be, an inspiration and an example to be followed. For Brazil, Coutinho appears to be taking this description literally.
For as long as they were both on the field here, Coutinho seemed to exist in Neymar’s shadow. Not in terms of performance, but geography.
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Coutinho was rarely, if ever, more than 10 yards from Neymar. He moved at the same speed as his friend, accelerating when Neymar sprinted, trotting when Neymar walked. He tracked him and he mirrored him and made sure he was close. It was, at times, as though the two were connected by a bungee cord. Every so often, Coutinho seemed to feel he was drifting too far away and, snap, back he would come. For 80 minutes, he never let Neymar out of his sight.
It would be easy to assume that this is because Coutinho — as the narrative around Brazil would have it — exists, like the tois, entirely in the service of Neymar, there to allow him to shine, to provide assistance on demand, to feed off his scraps. It is quite the opposite, in fact; the eye is drawn to Neymar, but that does not mean it is always looking at the right thing.
On Wednesday, in a 2-0 victory against Serbia, it was Coutinho whose wonderful, lofted pass created Brazil’s first goal, for Paulinho. It was Coutinho who set Tite’s team on the road to the last 16 and a meeting with Mexico, just as it was Coutinho who shined brightest in Brazil’s opening two games.
This is not the Brazil of 2014, when everything was about Neymar; this is a more balanced, more democratic team, one in which the burden can be shared a little more evenly, one which has, thus far in this tournament, been as defined by Coutinho from the shadows as it has been by Neymar, in the light.
Coutinho always appears to be close to Neymar because it is Coutinho setting the tempo, Coutinho directing play, Coutinho controlling the ebb and flow of the attack.
It is Coutinho who is the reference point, the one holding the cord. He is simply making sure Neymar is where he wants him to be, so that he is best placed to finish off what Coutinho has started. It is Coutinho who does not let his friend get too far away. He keeps him where he can see him because, for all that Neymar is the icing, Coutinho is the cake.
Here’s how Brazil beat Serbia (by Andrew Das):
88’: Neymar Not Stopping
Half-chances coming in quick succession for Neymar now. He almost lucks into a rebound, and then has a shot blocked. He has not stopped trying for a third goal.
87’: Almost 3-0
After countless passes from Brazil, a deflection finds Neymar all alone in the box. Well, not all alone. Serbia’s keeper Stojkovic smashes Neymar’s chip into the ground.
84’: What Could Have Been …
It really feels like Serbia could have made this a fun one if they’d converted one of those burst of chances in the middle of the second half. But they didn’t, Brazil scored, and it all feels a little inevitable now.
83’: Another Run for Brazil
And he almost does! Willian cuts into the area on the right, pulls the ball back to the spot and Neymar meets it — only to drive his shot into the ground and over the bar.
80’: Brazil Adds Bulk
The hulking Renato Augusto comes on for the silky Coutinho. He didn’t actually walk out there with a set of keys, but Brazil’s locking this down now. It’ll be up to Neymar to provide the spice without Coutinho, his running buddy.
78’: Casemiro Launches One
Casemiro gives you the exact opposite there: with few options out top he decides to take a whack and produces the most un-Brazilian shot you’ll ever see. It’s a rising ball that clears the bar by 20 feet and lands about 25 rows up. In Pele’s day, they’d probably run you off for a shot like that.
77’: Neymar vs. Three Serbs
It’s what makes Neymar Neymar though, and so much fun to watch: he just took on three Serbs rather than give the ball up, and it nearly produced a terrific shot if a teammate hadn’t got in the way.
73’: Neymar’s Show
Neymar is remarkably stubborn when it comes to taking the easy obvious play. He had Filipe Luis open out wide left there, and most of the world’s players would have taken the layoff, changed the angle, and tried to get on the end of it. Neymar just can’t bring himself to do it, though; it’s just too easy, too routine. So he dribbles a little and then gives it out. He loves the show, knows he’s the star of it, and gives the people a little flash every chance he gets.
71’: Stojkovic Stems the Tide
The failed clearance falls to Filipe Luis out top and he settles with a touch and lashes a side-footed shot that Stojkovic dives to parry.
Neymar and Coutinho lead another rush out across midfield, bringing danger and fear. But Coutinho cuts back at the top of the box a split-second too long, and his shot is deflected wide for a corner.
Rory Smith: Just as the game was starting to come to life, Brazil go and kill it off. Serbia had created a flurry of chances, seeming to turn what had been an assured Brazilian defense into a quivering mess. It seemed that there might be yet another stirring climax — to follow the adventures of Spain, Argentina and Germany — only for Neymar to swing in a corner and Thiago Silva to thump a header past Vladimir Stojkovic. Brazil has, once again, played in patches and flashes here, looking the best team in the tournament at one minute and somehow sluggish the next. The question — for all of us, but Mexico most immediately — is whether that’s all they can do, or whether there is more to come.
68’ GOAL! BRAZIL!
Neymar won the corner, delivered the corner and now he celebrates in the corner with Thiago Silva, who beat his man to the near post and buried a strong header. A Serbia-type goal, you might say, but it doubles Brazil’s lead, and may have punched their ticket to the round of 16.
67’: Neymar Doing Neymar Things
Neymar toys with Serbia in the corner a bit, because he’s Neymar. Now he’s won a corner.
66’: Paulinho Off for Fernandinho
That’s a defensive midfielder for an attacking one, and a sign that Tite knows his team needs a little help at the moment, and a little more grit to see this out.
65’: Brazil’s Defense Holds
And now ANOTHER Serbian chance: a Mitrovic header from six yards. But he sends it the only place he couldn’t — right into Alisson’s hands on the goal line.
63’: Serbia Keeps Attacking
Another Serbian surge: Tadic, Milinkovic-Savic and the rest press into the center again with Mitrovic, and Brazil frantically clears. The Serbs sense something.
61’: Serbia Goes Close
Rukavina, a defender surging forward briefly, sends in a curling ball that forces Alisson to dive and punch — but the ball lands right on the head of Mitrovic! His header hits a Brazilian, though, and falls back into the arms of Alisson, who didn’t even have the chance to scramble to his feet.
57’: Neymar Blocked
Brazil bursts right back upfield after winning control off the corner, and it’s Neymar who emerges with the ball on the left. He waits, waits, waits, and then hammers a shot off Stojkovic. He wins a corner, but surely wanted more.
Neymar’s corner hits a couple of heads but nothing comes of it.
56’: Threat from Serbia
That was wild: Ljacic rockets in a ball from the right, and Miranda arrives late to slash it over the bar. Corner.
53’: Serbia Responds
After another dangerous sequence on their own end, a burst from the Serbs at last. But a poor decision and a poor touch blow up the break. Too bad; that looked promising. Brazil is winning the possession battle, 55-45, right now.
50’: Serbia Needs to Push
Serbia can’t just sit around here; a loss and they go out at this point. Maybe they’ll just try to take their shots on set pieces, but at some point they’re going to have to come out and play a little more. Even if it means they go out losing 3-0. Better that than a timid exit.
48’: Yellow for Matic
Another Brazilian break, another hard, cynical foul. This time it’s Matic slicing down Paulinho at midfield. He gets a yellow card for that.
That’s two for him, so if Serbia goes through — a large IF right now — he’d miss the round of 16 matchup against Mexico or Sweden.
46’: Will Brazil Pull Back? Or Keep Attacking?
The teams are back on, and here we go.
Halftime: Brazil Leads, 1-0
That went as well as Brazil could have expected: they got the goal they wanted, they fended off every Serbian corner, and, as it stands, they’re positioned to go through tonight, The only downside, and it could be big, was Marcelo limping off after 10 minutes.
Rory Smith: This is turning into a very good day for Brazil. Germany, its great trans-Atlantic rival, is out — taken by Brazilians, it seems, as a sort of vicarious revenge for the 7-1 humiliation in 2014 — and now Tite’s team is sailing into a last 16 group that suddenly seems a whole lot less daunting. Most encouraging of all, though, is Neymar: he’s taken a little time to grow into the tournament, but he looks like he is here to play tonight. No matter how fit he is, or how confident, he always produces the tricks and flicks and feints, but there’s a real purpose about him against Serbia. That’s a good sign for the next two weeks.
45’: Neymar Dazzles and Misses
Neymar with a quick give-and-go with Filipe Luis gets the ball off a back heel and figures, why not? He curls a right-footed shot from the corner of the area and it nearly curls in. But it doesn’t, slipping just over the bar. Looked great though.
44’: Serbia’s Strong Legs
The one thing you notice in the back and forth is that when a Serbian goes in for a tackle, he wins the challenge. If a Brazilian in midfield tries the same thing with, say, Matic, he just bounces off.
40’: Serbia’s Free Kick Cleared
Adem Ljajic takes the corner but kicks it right into a cluster of Brazil defenders. Easy clearance.
39’: Brazil’s Fans Erupt
The Brazilian fans haven’t sat down since the goal. And the stewards just dragged a shirtless Serbian — who clearly got tired of being taunted — down the tunnel to my left.
Brazil needs to pay attention. They’ve just surrendered yet another corner.
37’: What That Goal Means
Still a loooooong way to go, but that goal and Switzerland’s means those two teams would go through.
35’: GOAL! Brazil Leads
AND THERE IT IS! Paulinho scores and Brazil has its lead.
Coutinho is the provider there, dropping a lovely ball over the top into the path of the charging Paulinho. He beats Stojkovic to it and toes it past him. Brazil, 1-0.
34’: Switzerland Scores
Switzerland is ahead, 1-0, in Nizhny Novgorod. So it’s all there for the taking here. Someone just needs to score.
32’: Neymar Sells It
Brazil breaks out on the left, first Jesus and then he feeds Neymar. Neymar toe-pokes it ahead and gets clipped to stop the attack. But his roll is magnificent: four or five full revolutions, covering almost 12 yards. Breathtaking really.
And then Brazil wastes the free kick.
29’: Gabriel Jesus Gets Behind
Gabriel Jesus gets in YARDS clear again, slips a defender in the box, but has his shot block by a trailing man. I don’t want to tell Milenkovic, the Serbian center back, what to do or anything, but he might want to stop keeping him onside. Because he can’t catch Gabriel Jesus once he’s in.
25’: Neymar Shoots … and Misses
Gabriel Jesus and Neymar take turns nutmegging Serbs and, together, walk the ball into the six-yard box. Neymar finally pulls the trigger, but his shot is wide to the right and never really has a chance.
The replay shows Stojkovic actually got a glove on it, but it was always going wide.
24’: Gabriel Jesus Looking for Opening
Gabriel Jesus is like a dog on a leash up front: he keeps darting forward, jab-stepping and hesitating, looking to get in behind. But his teammates are content to stroke the ball around, and so for now he’s just a tease up there — a goal waiting to happen.
21’: Danger for Brazil
Nice layoff from Mitrovic, the Serbian striker, in the center leads to a corner. As we said, Brazil isn’t entirely comfortable with these. Alisson rises again to punch the ball, but he can’t clear it. That takes a bit more effort from his teammates.
19’: Danger on All Sides
Neymar is standing on the left touchline and Willian on the right one as Brazil tries to decide which side to attack. Width is their friend. And Serbia’s enemy.
17’: Brazil Slows It Down
The Serbians whistle and jeer as Brazil passes the ball around. They like the little bit of momentum they have at the moment, and don’t like seeing it taken away.
14’: Kolarov Fires
Kolarov with a HARD shot from the top of the circle. The shot is deflected, but that Alisson raced over to try to keep it from being a corner says a lot about their fear of Serbia on set pieces.
11’: Alisson Punches It Away
Alisson rises above a crowd to push away the first really dangerous Serbian cross.
11’: Free Kick for Serbia
Fagner is called for holding by the referee Alireza Faghani.
10’: Filipe Luis in for Marcelo
Filipe Luis is standing by the fourth official, ready to come on. And finally the whistle comes. Not clear what Marcelo’s problem was, but he’s limping badly.
9’: Marcelo Comes Off
A slight delay on the touchline as Marcelo looks injured. He’s coming off! That hurts Brazil’s attack.
7’: Both Marcelo and Silva Go Down
Two Brazilians down — Marcelo and Thiago Silva — after a Serbian cross is cleared.
4’: Brazil Sprinting
This time it’s Jesus who gets in behind, but his shot hits Stojkovic, the goalkeeper. The rebound gets sent in as a second low shot — which Neymar inexplicably turns wide. Doesn’t matter. Jesus was offside.
2’: Neymar Creates
Neymar races up the middle like the sports car that he is, panicking the Serbs a little. But his layoff to Coutinho creates a shot that hits Gabriel Jesus, who’s offside.
1’: Serbia Starts With Energy
Serbia presses very high right from the start. That’s fun, and bold. But a bit risky. Chalk it down to kickoff exuberance.
Serbia spreads out wide before he kickoff. Brazil in a tight huddle. Here we go!
Winner Here Plays Mexico
The winner of Group E today — Brazil, Serbia or Switzerland — will go to Samara to face the runner-up in Group F, Mexico. The second-place team will play Sweden in St Petersburg.
Brazil’s known for their offense, but it’s been their defense lately that has come through. The last time Brazil gave up two goals in a game was 28 games ago in March of 2016. The last time Brazil conceded a first-half goal was 14 games ago.
In Case You Missed It
An eventful morning/afternoon of World Cup action resulted in defending championGermany being knocked out after losing to South Korea, 2-0. Because Germany didn’t score, that allowed Mexico to advancedespite being demolished by Sweden, 3-0. Sweden wins Group F.
Expect Brazil to Attack
Brazil starts an attacking lineup, because it wants a win to carry it into the group. But also because it’s Brazil, and the tens of thousands of Brazilian people here would mutiny.
Brazil’s Starting Lineup
Goalkeeper: 1 Alisson
Defenders: 22 Fágner, 2 Silva, 3 Miranda, 12 Marcelo
Midfielders: 15 Paulinho, 5 Casemiro, 11 Coutinho
Forwards: 19 Willian, 9 Gabriel Jesus, 10 Neymar
Spot the Ball
We’ve pulled some photos from group stage games and made one very important change — we removed the ball. See if you can guess where it was.
June 26, 2018
Brazil’s New National Pastime: Beating Up Neymar
After a couple lackluster performances, everybody likes to knock Neymar, Brazil’s superstar. Even the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is currently serving 12 years for corruption, got into the act:
“The first week of the World Cup proves Germany is not unbeatable and, among the top players, only Cristiano Ronaldo proved his value,” da Silva wrote in a text message to a Workers’ Party television affiliate.
And Juca Kfouri, a well-known Brazilian football commentator, accused Neymar of “Peter Pan Syndrome,” whatever that means.
Serbia’s Starting Lineup
Goalkeeper: 1 Vladimir Stojkovic (Partizan Belgrade)
Defenders: 11 Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma), 2 Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), 13 Milos Veljkovic (Werder Bremen), 15 Nikola Milenkovic (Fiorentina)
Midfielders: 21 Nemanja Matic (Manchester United), 20 Sergej Milinkovic Savic (Lazio), 22 Adem Ljajic (Torino), 10 Dusan Tadic (Southampton), 17 Filip Kostic (Hamburg)
Striker: 9 Aleksandar Mitrovic (Newcastle United)
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B 14 of the New York edition with the headline: With All Eyes on Neymar, Coutinho Leads Brazil. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe