SAO PAULO (AP) — Brazil will get the Copa America underway with the Neymar saga still far from over.
As the hosts closed their preparations for Friday’s opener against Bolivia, Neymar was still attracting most of the attention in the country even though he is not playing in the South American championship.
The player, who was ruled out of the tournament last week because of an ankle injury, appeared at a police station amid a media frenzy on Thursday to answer questions related to the allegations of a Brazilian woman who says he raped her when she visited him in Paris. Neymar has denied wrongdoing.
The team practiced a few hours later at the Morumbi Stadium, where it will begin its quest for the South American title against Bolivia in Group A.
Brazil is trying to quickly get past the Neymar controversy and focus solely on soccer.
“There’s more talk about Neymar (in the media) than there is talk about him within the squad,” Brazil coach Tite said on Thursday. “Within the squad we are focused on our preparations. I would never want to be in this situation of playing without Neymar, a top-three player in the world, but we have to be prepared.”
Neymar hurt his ankle in Brazil’s win over Qatar in a Copa America warm-up last week. He was on crutches on Thursday when he arrived to speak with investigators at the police station, where a crowd of fans cheered him.
This will be Brazil’s first tournament since the team’s loss to Belgium in the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Tite kept his job despite that elimination, but only the title will be good enough at the Copa America at home.
“We know it’s important to win titles, we can’t run away from that,” Tite said. “But winning that has to be done step by step, it’s part of a process.”
Tite said injured Barcelona midfielder Arthur is back in training but won’t start on Friday. Goalkeeper Ederson is also out after hurting a muscle in practice on Wednesday. He is expected to be sidelined for about a week.
Brazil has won the Copa America all four previous times it hosted the tournament, though its last South American title was in 2007.
Bolivia didn’t get past the group stage in the 2016 Copa America, but it made it to the quarterfinals in the 2015 tournament.
“Brazil is a favorite in any competition it plays and always has the responsibility to win,” Brazil defensive midfielder Casemiro said. “We are without Neymar, our biggest star, but we remain very strong. There’s no doubt we are prepared. The work done so far has been very good.”
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