Sunday 21 August 2016, 09:14

Neymar's golden touch illuminates Maracana

A Brazil team spearheaded by Neymar is not an unstoppable force: A Seleção Brasileira have stumbled more than once with the Barcelona superstar in the XI. Just do not expect the No10 not to bounce back, fight harder and drag his side to glory – particularly if the game in question is at the Maracana.

Back in 2012, Neymar experienced first-hand the frustration of losing the final of the Olympic Football Tournament to Mexico, yet the following year there he was, shining bright as A Verde e Amarelo overran Spain in the decider at the FIFA Confederations Cup on home soil. Come the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, the forward could only look on, absent through injury, as Brazil were taken apart by Germany in the semi-finals. But this Saturday, despite the build-up of decades’ worth of pressure inside a packed Maracana, there he was, ready to lead, shine and win once more.

“He is, above all else, a player who’s happy to be here, taking part in the Olympics,” said coach Rogerio Micale to, following the penalty shoot-out win over Germany that finally ended Brazil’s search for a first ever Olympic footballing gold. Captain and undisputed leading man, Neymar simply could not have shouldered a greater burden in his team’s quest: netting the stunning free-kick that opened the scoring in the 1-1 draw, and showing ice-cool to put away the decisive, hoodoo-breaking spot-kick in the shoot-out.

“That he’s a player who can unlock a game – like he did once again today – is something we already knew,” went on Micale. “But the most important thing is that he really wanted this fresh chance, having come so close to gold last time. Neymar is like that, he’s a fighter, and that’s why he’s gets the rewards – like he did today with the gold medal and the great tournament he’s had. He deserves everything that he achieves in his life.”****

Keeping his nerve Over the past month, which culminated in the Olympic final, Neymar has had to draw on all the resilience he has built up over the years. Even before the tournament began, he had to face questions regarding his commitment to the team. And after the first two games of A Seleção had ended in 0-0 draws – versus South Africa and Iraq – it seemingly became a national obsession to cast aspersions over the ability, leadership and performances of the Brazil captain.

All until, over the space of ten days, everything turned full circle. Suddenly there was Neymar, on his knees on the Maracana turf, crying tears of joy and relief and preparing to receive a gold medal – having racked up four goals and three assists for a winning team that also ended up earning praise for playing attractive and competitive football.

“However much people talked, we replied with our football. This is one of the happiest moments of my life,” was pretty much all Neymar had to say after leaving the field, relieved but still bristling, as if to underline his ability to stand up to whatever was thrown at him – on or off the pitch.

“His talent aside, he’s an incredible guy, particularly here with A Seleção, where perhaps the lads might have been a bit surprised by him. At least those who didn’t know him, as he was already in Europe by the time most of them turned pro,” explained midfielder Felipe Anderson, on Neymar’s importance within the squad. “He looked out for people, he helped in difficult moments and lifted our heads back up. He told us that if we were patient enough, we’d fight back and this moment would come. We owe a large part of this triumph to him.”

After scoring the wondrous free-kick that opened the scoring, the No10’s hug for coach Micale gave the impression that it was he, Neymar, who owed a debt of gratitude. Micale, smiling and happy, set the record straight post-match: “I’m the one who has a lot to be grateful to him for. And I think right now everybody would agree: the whole of Brazil has too.”