Neymar defies pressure to lift Brazil
It had the feel of a defining moment.
Of course it did: Brazil had to overcome Chile in a penalty shootout in the first knockout round. At the World Cup. A home nation's hopes in the balance.
The eyes of 200 million people were glued to television sets, in Fan Fests, living rooms and scruffy botecos. They had all been through the wringer after 120 minutes of fraught, breathless action in Belo Horizonte had failed to produce a winner between Brazil and Chile. Only the width of the crossbar had prevented the underdogs winning in extra time. Luiz Felipe Scolari's face said it all: We are not enjoying this one bit.
The penalties started well for Brazil, Julio Cesar channelling his surging emotions to deny Mauricio Pinilla and Alexis Sanchez. David Luiz, the bubbly father figure within this squad, had blasted away some of the nerves, but then Willian and Hulk missed, meaning the scores were level after four kicks apiece.
Brazil's fifth penalty taker was Neymar. Minutes earlier he had rallied the troops, but here he was all on his own. The Selecao's best player, their only genuine craque, walked up to the spot. You could not help but fear for him.
Neymar claims not to feel the pressure. "You don't feel it when you're realising your childhood dreams," he said after Brazil's win over Cameroon.
But at that instant, in the late afternoon sun, the whole world held its breath. He had to feel it. On such moments do whole careers turn.
He began his run-up -- that sidestepping, stop-start run-up. He gave Claudio Bravo the eyes. And then ... the ball rippled the net. Like there was ever any doubt.
Pressure? What pressure?
"He's 22 but plays like he's 35," Scolari said after the game. "He's so mature. He's very strong mentally... he's been ready for this since the age of 17, 18. It's simple for him -- he plays football and enjoys it. When he took that penalty, it was like he was having a kick-around in Santos."
Brazil, who once more looked a shadow of the side that won last summer's Confederations Cup, will be thankful that their talisman copes so well with the responsibility. He bears the weight of expectation as if it were a feather, blown into the stadium on the autumn breeze.
Greater challenges lie ahead for the Selecao, of course. But if Neymar continues to deal with the pressure with this degree of levity, they are in with a chance.
Jack Lang writes about football (mainly Brazilian) for a number of websites and publications, including The Mirror, Yahoo! Eurosport, When Saturday Comes and UEFA.com. You can find links to all his articles on his blog, Snap, Kaká and Pop!.