With Neymar struggling, Brazilian soccer fans turn to Marta
BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — The frustration with Brazil's soccer team is so great that fans are jeering Neymar and wishing women's star Marta could come to the rescue.
While Marta has been thriving with the women's team, Neymar has disappointed at the men's Olympic tournament, where Brazil is facing early elimination in a scenario that once seemed unthinkable in the soccer-obsessed host country.
Fans watching Brazil struggle in a 0-0 draw against Iraq on Sunday heckled Neymar by chanting Marta's name at the Mane Garrincha Stadium in Brasilia, wishing she help solve the many problems of the men's team.
Neymar and his young teammates had already been held to a scoreless draw by South Africa in their opener, leaving Brazil in need of a victory against Denmark in its final Group A match on Wednesday to advance to the quarterfinals and avoid another huge embarrassment two years after the demoralizing 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup.
Brazil's senior team, which used to represent soccer excellence, also endured a disappointing elimination in the group stage of the Copa America Centenario about a month ago.
Marta has become a symbol of the "Jogo Bonito" (The Beautiful Game) that Brazilian fans want to see in soccer.
When Brazil's women's team enchanted the crowd at the Olympic Stadium in a 5-1 rout of Sweden on Saturday, fans chanted "Marta is better than Neymar" several times.
"This comparison we leave to the fans. We all cheer for the men's team and we know that they cheer for us," said Marta, who scored twice in that match to help the women's team easily reach the next round. "Neymar is the best player we have right now, he is fantastic."
Brazil men's coach Rogerio Micale praised Marta and the women's team but downplayed the "Marta" chants at the men's game.
"You can't compare women's football with men's football, but we have to congratulate them," Micale said. "They are going through a great moment, playing a great tournament. We have been watching them. They have already advanced and I hope that the men's team can succeed as well in this first stage."
Marta has been constantly featured in television sports shows across Brazil, giving many interviews and always showing off her broad smile.
Neymar, meanwhile, continues to keep to himself, appearing in rare news conferences organized by the Brazilian soccer confederation. In a recent one, he got into a discussion with a reporter and said that he should be allowed to go out and party as much as he wants to during his time off.
After Sunday's match, he sped past reporters, head down, leaving the younger players to try to explain the team's disappointing performance to the media. He entered the team's bus and sat by himself, headphones on.
Neymar arrived as the top player at the Olympic soccer tournament and as one of the biggest stars of the Rio de Janeiro Games. The Barcelona striker skipped the Copa America to be able to play at the Olympics and try to give Brazil its first soccer gold medal.
The 24-year-old Neymar took on the responsibility of trying to restore the nation's soccer pride after the recent disappointments, but was criticized by some for spending time on vacation and not arriving for the tournament as prepared as other players.
He was far from his best in the first two games, unable to ignite the scoring power of an attack that also has promising stars Gabriel Jesus and Gabigol, touted as some of the best youngsters in Latin American soccer.
"Neymar is an experienced player," Micale said. "He is gaining rhythm as we play. He obviously remains an important player."
Brazil is the main favorite to win the Olympic tournament, which is played mostly with under-23 squads and features very few stars. The Olympic gold is the only trophy the five-time World Cup champions haven't won in men's soccer.