SAO PAULO (AP) — It might be time to put Neymar’s name back on the Brazilian jersey.
After an uninspired start that prompted some fans to replace his name with Marta’s on the famed No. 10 shirt, Neymar is finally showing why he arrived at the Olympics as one of its biggest stars.
Neymar led Brazil to the semifinals of the Olympic soccer tournament with an outstanding performance in the 2-0 win over Colombia on Saturday. He scored a goal and was one of the best players on the field, constantly creating opportunities despite being harassed by Colombian players nearly every time he touched the ball.
“He took a beating but he still helped the team a lot,” Brazil striker Gabriel Jesus said. “Everybody knows he is a star. He is crucial for us.”
Neymar impressed with his talent and his toughness, the type of performance that Brazilian fans had been expecting since the beginning of the Olympics.
“Neymar gave a very positive response,” Brazil Olympic coach Rogerio Micale said. “He was provoked almost the entire first half but he didn’t let that get to him. He behaved well as the team’s captain.”
The Barcelona player lost his cool once before halftime, committing a hard foul on a Colombian player with a tackle that led to a bench-clearing brawl. The play ignited fans at the Arena Corinthians, but he left himself in danger of being sent off.
“It was the only thing. He came in harder, just like they were doing, and received the yellow card,” Micale said. “After that, he kept his calm.”
Despite being the tournament’s top player, Neymar had disappointed in the first two games with Brazil, when the title-favorites were held to scoreless draws by South Africa and Iraq. He was being loudly criticized by fans and local media, who said he lacked leadership and wasn’t worth being Brazil’s captain.
A photo of a Brazil jersey with Neymar’s name scratched off and replaced with Marta’s name went viral, and supporters heckled him by chanting the women’s star’s name during games.
With the team in danger of another embarrassing home elimination two years after the demoralizing 7-1 loss to Germany at the World Cup, Neymar finally took over in the must-win game against Denmark, setting up two goals in the 4-0 victory.
On Saturday, he kept alive Brazil’s hopes of winning the soccer gold for the first time by scoring from a free kick in the 12th minute. He controlled the pace for Brazil throughout the match despite being provoked by Colombian players.
“Neymar is very experienced, he helped us a lot,” said Luan, who scored the other goal against Colombia in the quarterfinals. “He controlled the game and overcame the pressure. He was crucial in our victory.”
Neymar is only 24 but is one of the team’s most experienced players. He skipped the Copa America earlier this year so he could play in the Olympics to try to give Brazil the unprecedented gold, which is the only significant trophy Brazil hasn’t won in soccer. Neymar was in the team that lost the 2012 Olympic final to Mexico in London.
Brazil will play Honduras in Wednesday’s semifinals at the Maracana Stadium, which will be the team’s first game in Rio de Janeiro. Germany and Nigeria play the other semifinal match in Sao Paulo, also on Saturday.