Neymar's return helps Brazil rediscover its groove as World Cup title favorite




Los jugadores de Brasil hacen un círculo para celebrar el gol de Neymar en la victoria.
Los jugadores de Brasil hacen un círculo para celebrar el gol de Neymar en la victoria.  

When Neymar limped off the field in tears and favoring his right ankle late in Brazil's opening-game victory in Qatar, it got so quiet you could hear a World Cup championship trophy drop.

Brazil might have the finest collection of soccer talent on the planet, but A Seleção, the country's national team, is pretty much Neymar and Friends: That group-stage win left Brazil 26-1-4 in the last 31 games Neymar started. Without him, Brazil sputtered, splitting its next two games and scoring just once.

On Monday, Brazil got Neymar and its groove back, likely changing the direction of this World Cup. It certainly changed Brazil, which scored four times in the first 36 minutes in a 4-1 rout of South Korea, delighting a largely yellow-clad crowd of 43,847 at Stadium 974 on the shores of the Arabian Gulf and earning a date with Croatia in the quarterfinals, the round in which Brazil's last World Cup came undone.

"Neymar, for sure, provides a competition advantage," said Brazilian assistant coach Cesar Sampaio. "He makes us different on the pitch. He is the driving force."

Neymar's injury, which threatened to sideline him for the rest of the tournament, had left the team idling in neutral. When he trained without issue Sunday, he was cleared to start Monday and Brazil was back in gear.

"The certainty, I only had it after the last practice," said Tite, Brazil's manager. "The medical staff had already cleared him for the match. Nothing had to be said."

With their talisman back, the top-ranked Brazilians played again with the swagger and arrogance that had made them heavy World Cup favorites, scoring more goals in the first 13 minutes of the round-of-16 game than they had in their last two group matches combined.

Vinicius Junior got things started, collecting a loose ball that had scooted across the front of the goal, settling it with his right foot before banging it home from well inside the left edge of the box in the seventh minute. Neymar doubled the lead six minutes later on a penalty kick.

After French referee Clement Turpin whistled the foul on Jung Woo-young, Raphinha grabbed the ball and stood on the spot, waiting for the penalty to be confirmed. When it was, he handed the ball to Neymar, who stutter-stepped, then beat Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu in the bottom right corner.

Neymar controls the ball in front of South Korea
Neymar controls the ball in front of South Korea's Hwang In-beom, left, during Monday's match.  

The goal was the 76th of Neymar's international career, leaving him one behind Pelé on Brazil's all-time list. In terms of World Cup trophies, he still trails Pelé by three, but that gap could narrow as well if Brazil continues to play the way it did Monday.

Richarlison made it 3-0 in the 29th minute - the quickest 3-0 lead for a Brazilian team in a World Cup - then helped set up a goal by Lucas Paqueta seven minutes later that left South Korea praying for the halftime whistle. It was Brazil's most complete performance since a 5-1 win over South Korea in June, when Neymar scored twice on penalty kicks.

"Besides his technical skill, he also motivates other players," Sampaio said of the Neymar factor. "Neymar is a technical leader. Some players have other skills. Neymar is a technical leader."

Give the Koreans credit for coming back after the intermission - and for slowing down the game, which won them a reward in the 76th minute when Paik Seung-ho scored, shaving a goal off Brazil's lead and restoring some of Korea's dignity. The Koreans could have had a couple more goals if not for two spectacular saves from Brazilian keeper Alisson.

Neymar came out in the 81st minute to protect his ankle and, by extension, Brazil's World Cup hopes. This time, he took his seat in the team's dugout with a smile, not tears, on his face.

"The night of the injury was a very difficult night," Neymar said Monday. "I was thinking a million different things. I was afraid I would not be able to play again in this World Cup."

At the postgame news conference, he thanked everyone from God and his teammates to Brazil's fans and team trainer Ricardo Sasaki, who accompanied him to the meeting with the media.

After the game, Neymar, his boots off and his ankle wraps removed, walked onto to the field carrying a banner saluting Pelé, who has reportedly entered palliative end-of-life care in a Brazilian hospital, which has only released that he is recovering from a respiratory infection that was aggravated by COVID-19. It was a fitting tribute from a young man who is enjoying some of his biggest days to a legend who might be in his last ones.

Neymar might soon pass Pelé in goals, but the three World Cup titles make Pele uncatchable as a legend. Neymar would like to have at least one, though, and he could get that this month.

"I am happy to be back. I am happy to have played well," Neymar said. "I did not have any pain. I'm very content. But we need to aim for more."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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