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Barcelona, Brazil fight over Neymar as Dunga stresses for his long-term future
Even as Brazil find form, there is trouble ahead as Neymar finds himself in the middle of a tug of war between club and country. Barcelona have made their position clear. They only want him to play one of this summer's tournaments, either the Copa Centenario in the U.S. in June or the Olympics in Brazil in August. They are under no obligation to release the player for the latter competition as it's not a FIFA tournament and so if Brazil want Neymar for the Olympics (which they do), they will have to leave him out of the Copa.
This would seem to make sense from all angles... apart from one.
First up, there is the fact that whatever he says to the contrary, Neymar could surely do with a break. In 2011 he played the Copa America in Argentina, followed by the London Olympics the following year. At this point he was still based in Brazil with Santos, which gave him a holiday at the turn of the year, but that break disappeared when he moved to Barcelona in 2013. Since then he has played the Confederations Cup that year, the World Cup in 2014 and the Copa America in Chile last year.
From Barcelona's point of view, it would be madness to expose him to a full summer's action with no break at all. There is no doubt that he would pay a price for such over-activity in the following European season and Barcelona pay him too much to allow him to jeopardise his fitness levels in this way.
Also, Brazil have clearly decided that their priority over the next few months is the Olympic tournament. They have won plenty of Copas, including the recent quartet in 1997, 1999, 2004 and 2007. But they have never won the Olympic gold medal, the only title for which they are eligible that they have yet to claim. The idea of putting that right on home soil is deeply attractive; it also helps explain why coach Dunga made it clear a couple of months ago that if they had to choose between the two competitions, Neymar would play in the Olympics.
Moreover, there is something else lurking on the horizon that could be even more important than the Olympic triumph: the risk of missing out on the next World Cup. Brazil have a proud record of taking part in every single one but a third of the way into the Russia 2018 qualifiers, they are down in sixth place, one spot outside even the play-off position. Coming up later this year is the most intense stage of the qualification process: two rounds in September, two in October, two in November, an entire third of the campaign over the course of a few short weeks.
Brazil will really want Neymar firing on all cylinders at that stage, so why on earth are the CBF, Brazil's football association, still trying to work all the stops to secure Neymar's participation in the Copa?
In a letter published on Friday, they acknowledged Barcelona's desire (well, more of an imposition) that Neymar be restricted to one tournament. But the CBF also declared that they "will make every possible effort" and that they "are counting on [Neymar's] efforts to persuade the club." Given that they have concluded that the Copa is not a priority, why risk burning out the player and straining relations with his club in order to try to get Neymar on the plane for the other competition?
The key to this tug of war might be Dunga, who needs Neymar in order to preserve his job as Brazil manager.
The answer lies in the fact that the CBF now have an attitude towards the Copa that might politely be described as contradictory. On one hand, the institution doesn't seem to deem it a high priority but for coach Dunga, it feels like a case of job survival.
Never a popular choice to take over for a second spell after the last World Cup, Dunga's prestige dwindles with every disappointing result and every row that he causes, such as leaving out centre-back Thiago Silva in favour of David Luiz, or the harsh manner in which he dropped goalkeeper Jefferson. Recent 2-2 draws at home to Uruguay and away to Paraguay, results that put Brazil outside the qualification slots, almost cost Dunga his job and in a crisis meeting last week, he was reportedly told that his fate depends on results in the short term.
His big objective at the moment is to stay in charge until the Olympics; winning the gold medal in August will put his name in the history books and shore up his prestige. But what if he does not last that long? A disappointing Copa campaign would seal his fate, which explains the call for Neymar and the desire that the star player risk his long-term fitness in order to help dig the current regime out of a hole.