Brazil's men slowly find Olympic form, but Neymar still gets booed by fans
It has taken a good deal longer than most expected, but Brazil's men are finally up and running in the Olympic football tournament. After two abject 0-0 draws in their opening two matches, the Selecao found their cutting edge against an accommodating Denmark side on Wednesday night, running out 4-0 winners in Salvador.
"Resuscitated," read the front page of sports daily Lance on Thursday morning, which seemed just about right. After the choking tedium of the games against South Africa and Iraq, this was a display to breathe life and hope into Brazil's campaign, even if it will not fully neutralise doubts over this side's ability to secure a long-awaited gold medal later this month.
On the face of it, the key moment of the game was Gabriel Barbosa's scuffed opening goal, which settled the nerves and allowed the hosts to go about their business with a renewed sense of conviction. But of greater long-term significance might be the third goal, scored by Luan, not because it was an especially memorable finish but because its construction suggested that Brazil's most potent attacking force might be awaking from his slumber.
The final pass was provided by Douglas Santos, but the architect was Neymar. There appeared to be little on when he picked the ball up 30 yards from goal, almost stationary, but the Barcelona forward looked up and guided a delicate, falling-leaf chip over the full-back into his teammate's path. From that point, the rippling of the net was only a matter of time.
Neymar led the celebrations, lapping up the applause by the corner flag, but it's safe to assume he did so with slightly conflicted feelings at the end of a troubled, testy fortnight.
Even before the Olympics began, questions were being raised over his mindset and preparations for the tournament. A short period of acclimatisation was to be expected -- after all, Neymar played no part at the Copa America and was missing preseason in Spain to be at the Games -- but some feared that his social engagements would prove a distraction, both to him and his young teammates. In the face of those concerns, Neymar felt compelled to mount a defence of his personal life on the eve of the tournament.
"Off the field, it's my life," he told reporters at a news conference, visibly annoyed. "I'm a 24-year-old guy -- why can't I go out to parties? You have to hold me accountable for what I do on the pitch."
Unfortunately for him, what he was doing on the pitch was not up to his usual standards. In the warm-up game against Japan, he was sluggish and selfish; against South Africa, he came alive only in the closing stages and was lucky that Gabriel Jesus' horror miss deflected some of the attention away from his display.
Worse was to come in the match against Iraq. As Brazil squandered chance after chance, the crowd in Brasilia grew increasingly frustrated, booing the home side and eventually even encouraging their opponents with ironic cheers of "olé!" Neymar, in particular, came in for abuse after another underwhelming contribution. When he picked up the ball, supporters screamed "Marta!" -- a pointed reference to the beloved leader of the Brazil women's side who, in stark contrast to the men, began their Olympic summer with a pair of commanding victories.
After the match, no Selecao player stopped to speak to broadcast media at the side of the pitch, provoking a staggering on-air rant from Globo anchor Galvao Bueno.
"It's ugly, really ugly," he hollered, directly to camera. "It's not professional, not ethical and not correct." His ire extended to the whole team, but Neymar seemed to be the main target. When the forward trudged through the mixed zone without stopping later in the evening, his status as scapegoat-in-chief was cemented.
"I've never seen him make so many errors," wrote ex-Brazil forward Tostao, while Zico was even more severe in his evaluation: "He doesn't have what it takes to be captain. He should only be worrying about his game," the former playmaker said. A photo of a young boy wearing a Selecao jersey went viral in Brazil on Monday; he had crossed out Neymar's name above the No. 10 and scrawled Marta's name in its place.
Much of the backlash was facile. Neymar was merely the most visible target for a cadre of fans who feel increasingly let down by Brazil's string of dismal failures at major tournaments. At such times, more base instincts tend to come to the fore. The Barca star might be playing poorly, but he's not the only one. He might like to stay up late, but the transformation of his body since he was a teenager speaks for itself, as does his modest injury record. He might not be a natural leader, but inspiration comes in many guises.
In the grand scheme of things, the Brazilian game has 999 problems, but Neymar isn't one. Still, coach Rogerio Micale decided it was worth issuing a stark warning to the naysayers.
"If we're not careful, and if we don't respect our star players, they won't want to be here," he said. "We're always looking for someone to blame and waste so much time with this. We have to stop looking for villains."
Neymar's response against Denmark was encouraging, if still slightly muted. He certainly looked more willing to combine with teammates and seemed to benefit from the presence of the fleet-footed Luan, who started in place of Felipe Anderson. There would be no goal -- Neymar last scored for Brazil six games (and 11 months) ago, making this his longest dry spell so far for his country -- but no sulking and no booing either. Encouraging signs, then, for both player and team.
There was also that pass, of course, an act of improvisational brilliance that only he could have envisaged, let alone pulled off. Deep down, even his critics must know that.