“Neymar, Neymar” echoed through the stadium even before the Brazilian superstar took the penalty spot. Twelve minutes were played, just before that Vinicius Junior had made it 1-0 for Brazil (7). Neymar grabbed the ball, took his time, tripped a bit and then casually pushed the ball over the line to make it 2-0. The rehearsed jubilation choreography followed: Neymar stood in the middle of the Brazilian-yellow cluster of players and his colleagues danced around him.
It shouldn’t be the last dance. The goals from Richarlison (29th) and Lucas Paqueta (36th) to make it 4-1 (4-0) made for more exuberant samba interludes, in which coach Tite even took part once. Former Darmstadt player Paik Seung-Ho (76th) scored for South Korea.
Brazil top favorites for the title
It was the biggest question before the game: can he play or not? Neymar picked up a foot injury in the first group game against Serbia and was absent from the entire group stage. The whole nation hoped and feared that he could finally come back against South Korea. He could play and was even in the starting XI.
And you could see immediately what an effect that had on the team: the record world champion made you want to watch from the start and scored the first goal with the first shot on goal. The surprise round of 16 from South Korea had nothing to oppose the offensive art.
The entire Seleção around Neymar presented themselves as goal-hungry, enthusiastic and incredibly strong in attack. It was a show of strength – and a very different act from qualifying and the group stage, when they failed to score before half-time in three games. By now, at the latest, Brazil should be back on the list as favorites for the title. Vice-world champions Croatia, who beat Japan 3-1 on penalties, await in the quarter-finals.
A win for Pele
It would be the sixth title for the record world champion, a title that football legend Pelé apparently dreams of just as much as many novices in the team who have not yet won a single one. The 82-year-old cancer patient reported from the hospital shortly before the game that he was strong and full of hope. “I want to inspire you, my friends,” Pelé said on Instagram. “I’ll be watching the game here from the hospital and I’ll be cheering for each and every one of you. We’re on this journey together.”
And as a token of reverence, after the final whistle, the players carried a huge banner bearing Pelé’s likeness onto the pitch, sending their get-well wishes to São Paulo. “That touches me very much. I hope that he will recover quickly and that he was happy about this win,” said Neymar after the end of the game. Goalscorer Vinicius Junior followed suit, visibly emotional: “He just gives us strength. We dedicate this victory to Pele and we hope that we can become world champions for him.”
Neymar under observation
Pelé has won the World Cup three times, Neymar never. It’s been a long time since the last title: in 2002 the Brazilians won it for the last time with a 2-0 win over Germany in the final. So Brazil has been waiting for their sixth triumph for 20 years and only with a world title would Neymar join the ranks of world champions around Romario or Ronaldo.
After all, things are going a lot better for him on the third attempt than in his first two World Cup appearances: in 2014 he broke his vertebrae in the quarter-finals of the home World Cup in Brazil and missed the historic 7-1 semi-final against Germany. Four years later in Russia, Brazil were eliminated in the quarterfinals with a weak Neymar. “I was afraid of not being able to reach the end of this World Cup,” Neymar explained on ZDF. “I was still working with the physios until this morning.”
And so now the focus is again on sport, the criticism should be quieter. Recently, not only the ankle injury caused some violent reactions in the social networks, but also his political views. It’s no secret that Neymar supports recently ousted right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Now Neymar has delivered. He wasn’t the best on the pitch but he is now one of three Brazilians, along with Pelé and Ronaldo, to have scored in three different World Cups. With 76 international goals now, he is only one away from the great Pelé. And perhaps Brazil’s superstar is on the way to the peak of his career with the Seleção. Because that’s his biggest dream, said Neymar: “We’re still three games away. We’re well prepared and mentally focused on it. I hope we can crown this World Cup with a title.”