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Brazil have taken Neymar's armband, but why was he captain in the first place?

The captain of Brazil's legendary 1970 side was not the outstanding player, Pele. Nor was it Gerson, the midfield maestro who would make tactical changes and was seen by coach Mario Zagallo as his extension on the field. The man who led the team out was Carlos Alberto, who, like Dani Alves, Neymar's replacement as captain for next month's Copa America (all games airing live on ESPN+), was the team's right-back.

The criteria in 1970 was clear. Carlos Alberto was a strong character. Many will recall his genial media appearances in later life. But he was also a ferocious figure. In the wonderful game against England in that year's World Cup, Brazil's goalkeeper Felix was kicked by Francis Lee. The task of gaining revenge fell naturally to the team captain. A few minutes later, Carlos Alberto caught Lee with a brutal foul. It was considered part of his duties. And that same fiery temper could also be turned on his teammates when necessary. He could inspire them, represent them and intimidate them and therefore he could lead them.

A deep historical belief exists in Brazil that this is the type of captain the national side needs. The Selecao can usually count on a dazzling collection of individual talent, but to wield them into an effective collective unit, it is thought, an old-fashioned sergeant major is needed, yelling and pointing, bawling out those who lose concentration and let the side down. Dunga in the 1990s was an embodiment of this type.

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In this context, Neymar was hardly a typical Brazil captain. Back as coach, Dunga chose him for the role after the disaster of the 2014 World Cup. A couple of years later he voluntarily relinquished the role, and new coach, Tite, decided against having a fixed captain. The armband was passed around the team, with a different player leading them out from game to game. After Russia 2018, Neymar took it on once more and now has lost it. This seems to be a punishment for his conduct after the final of the French Cup, where he was seen to snake out an arm in the direction of a supporter who was giving him some criticism.

Perhaps, though, there is a more pertinent question than why Neymar has lost the captaincy: Why did he ever have it?

The answer here is that it was almost his by default. The 2014 World Cup captain was centre-back Thiago Silva -- a magnificent player but one who clearly buckled under the pressure of playing that tournament at home. One of the enduring images of the competition is that of Thiago Silva after the final whistle had blown in the second-round match against Chile. A 1-1 draw meant the game would be decided by a penalty shootout. It is a time when the captain should be rallying his men, filling them with confidence ahead of the drama. Thiago Silva did none of this. He sat on a football away from the rest of the team, sobbing his heart out. This man was clearly not captain material.

Thiago Silva could be seen as an extreme example of a wider phenomenon, one that stretches well beyond Brazil. Many contemporary coaches from all sorts of different countries complain that modern football suffers from a dearth of old-fashioned leaders. Today's players, it is often said, are more psychologically brittle than their predecessors. There are fewer bawlers and shouters to organise the team by force of personality, and many modern-day players can react badly to this form of leadership.

Looking around the Brazil team, then, there have been a shortage of candidates to fill the boots of Carlos Alberto. In the absence of old-fashioned moral leadership, the temptation has been to go for technical leadership -- in other words, choose the outstanding player. Neymar is not without virtues in this sense. He is recognised as a keen trainer, and if the best player is more than pulling his weight on the training ground, this sets a positive example to the others.

But he remains a very young 27-year-old, a Neymar Junior in a role for seniors. He is unlikely to be badly hurt by losing the captaincy. His importance as a player is being recognised in the choice of his replacement. Alves is his teammate at PSG, just as he was previously at Barcelona. He is a well-respected voice in the dressing room and is seen as an important influence on Neymar.

Students of history will recall that Carlos Alberto was a firm friend of Pele's back in 1970. Pele was the outstanding player, Carlos Alberto was the captain, and things ended up fine in the Mexico World Cup. Perhaps Neymar and Alves can do likewise in 2019 at the Copa America.


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