Neymar needed just three minutes in the opening match of the Confederations Cup to end concerns over whether a nine-game goalless run was eroding his confidence.
The 21-year-old striker smashed a 25-meter (27-yard) shot into the top corner of the net at the $750 million Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasilia as Brazil began the soccer competition with a 3-0 victory over Asian champion Japan.
Neymar, who this month completed a 57 million-euro ($76 million) move to Spanish champion Barcelona, is Brazil’s main hope as it seeks to win a record-extending sixth World Cup on home soil next year. In the build-up to yesterday’s game, the former Santos striker had to defend himself from claims he was suffering because of his barren run.
“This is Neymar,” Brazil defender David Luiz said in an interview after the game. “When you speak about him he just replies on the pitch. That’s why he’s a fantastic player.”
While Neymar was cheered by the 67,423 crowd, Brazil President Dilma Rousseff and Sepp Blatter, head of soccer’s governing body FIFA, were jeered and whistled as they made remarks to open the two-week tournament, a warm-up event for the World Cup.
The booing intensified when Blatter admonished the crowd for not showing “fair play” and “respect” to Rousseff. Brazilians have protested projects linked to the World Cup, including the 7 billion reais ($3.3 billion) in public money being spent on 12 stadiums.
Police had earlier used tear gas to break up a demonstration outside the stadium after protestors blocked the main access road for a second straight day. Banners said money earmarked for the World Cup would be better spent on social programs to ease inequality in the world’s sixth-largest economy.
Inside the stadium, one of several whose long-term sustainability has been questioned, Brazil dominated to earn support from a crowd that hasn’t always been behind the team in recent months.
Three-time World Cup winner Pele, Brazil’s all-time leading goal scorer, this week urged supporters to back the team after it was jeered during two of its past three exhibition games. A loss of form has seen the team plummet to a record low of 22nd in FIFA’s world rankings.
“The team has been improving game by game,” said Luiz. “We can understand more about the philosophy of our coach Felipao. Game by game we can improve and do better things.”
Neymar, whose image was pasted onto a giant poster on a high-rise building close to the stadium by one of his 12 sponsors, made his impact within minutes of an emotionally charged rendition of the national anthem that had goalkeeper Julio Cesar in tears.
After strike partner Fred laid the ball off with his chest, Neymar hit a half-volley beyond Eiji Kawashima.
“It all happened in a flash,” Neymar said. “Fred collected the ball and laid it off, I connected full on and happily the ball found the target.”
The Japan goalkeeper prevented Brazil extending its lead with a save at full stretch from Fred’s low shot.
Paulinho doubled Brazil’s lead three minutes after halftime when Kawashima allowed the midfielder’s shot to slide under his body. Neymar, who received medical attention following a collision with an opponent, was replaced by Paris Saint-Germain’s Lucas Moura with 15 minutes to go. Substitute Jo completed the scoring for the host nation in injury time at the end of the game.
Group A rivals Mexico and Italy meet today in Rio de Janeiro when world champion Spain opens its tournament against Uruguay in Recife in Group B. Nigeria and Tahiti, the remaining teams in the competition, play tomorrow in Belo Horizonte.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Elser at email@example.com