Sao Paulo - Much has changed for Brazil's national team since last year's humiliating World Cup exit, but as the 2018 qualifying campaign gets underway Thursday 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's been the almost equally embarrassing failure to survive the Copa America, going out to lowly Paraguay on penalties. The coach has been changed and there have been endless postmortems.
But 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 the "canarinha", as the team's called, cannot win.
He was out injured during the 2014 Cup semi-final drubbing. Then at the Copa America against Colombia he was red carded and handed a four-match suspension, missing the rest of the tournament, along with his country's disappointing exit.
Now with two matches still left on that suspension, Neymar will again be absent for Brazil's 2018 opening qualifiers against Chile on Thursday and Venezuela on 13 October.
A promise to improve his conduct -- "I mustn't let myself do such stupid things," he said in Barcelona recently -- and an appeal for his suspensions to be postponed failed. And Brazil is dreading the consequences.
For pessimists, Neymar isn't just important: the supremely skilled scoring machine is one of the last representatives of Brazil's fabled "jogo bonito," or beautiful game.- Yawning hole -
The question many here ask is whether the reliance on Neymar doesn't illustrate the broader failure of a system that focuses on exporting of young talent to clubs abroad, robbing the country of the chance to develop a whole team of Neymars.
Since his debut against the United States on August 10, 2010, Neymar has played 67 games for Brazil, scoring 46 times and missing only four non-friendlies.
When he has been missing, the yawning hole has been impossible to fill.
Three of the big recent defeats - against Germany in World Cup semis, then a 3-0 loss to Holland in the third-place match, and the Copa America loss in June to Paraguay - took place without Neymar. In his absence the team only won once in a full international: 2-1 against Venezuela.
Now coach Dunga is pleading for fans and team members alike to stop looking over their shoulder for the absent savior.
"We would like to have Neymar, but it's not possible. We need to focus on the players who will be there with us," Dunga said when he announced the team on September 17.
But Dunga himself is as much responsible as anyone for Neymar's coronation as the lynchpin of a team that was desperate for a new start when the coach took over from Luiz Felipe Scolari after the World Cup.
The striker was on an incredible roll, building up to winning the treble with Barcelona and happy to be made Brazilian captain in place of Thiago Silva, a player whose reputation sank with the World Cup flop.
Neymar didn't disappoint and ahead of the fateful Copa America, Dunga boasted 10 out of 10 victories in friendlies.
But what no one foresaw - or prepared for - was that the brilliant teammate of Messi and Luis Suarez in Barcelona would lose his composure and see red against Colombia. In addition to his immaturity on the pitch, Neymar is running into tax problems back home.
Still, he remains the big hope and all Brazil is counting the days until his return from suspension against great rivals Argentina in Buenos Aires next month.