SAO PAULO • Much has changed for Brazil's national football team since last year's humiliating World Cup exit, but as the 2018 qualifying campaign kicks off tomorrow, one worrying factor stays the same: the absence of superstar Neymar.
More than a year has passed since that extraordinary 7-1 meltdown against Germany in Brazil's own World Cup. Since then, there has been the almost equally embarrassing failure to survive the Copa America, going out to lowly Paraguay on penalties.
In all that turmoil, the football-mad nation has remained fixated on national captain and Barcelona star Neymar and the near obsessive fear that without him, Brazil cannot win.
He was out injured during last year's World Cup semi-final drubbing. At the Copa America against Colombia, he was red carded and was subsequently handed a four-match suspension, missing the rest of the tournament.
Now, with two matches still left on that suspension, Neymar will again be absent for Brazil's qualifiers against Chile tomorrow and Venezuela on Tuesday.
Since his debut against the United States in 2010, Neymar has played 67 games for Brazil, scoring 46 times, missing just four games.
When he has been missing, the yawning hole has been impossible to fill. In his absence the team won only once - 2-1 against Venezuela.
Now coach Dunga is pleading for fans and players alike to stop looking over their shoulder for the absent saviour.
"We would like to have Neymar, but it's not possible. We need to focus on the players who will be there with us," he said.