RIO DE JANEIRO: Neymar’s road to redeeming Bra-zilian football hasn’t always been smooth, but the Barcelona star now has the scene he craved to deliver a first football gold medal for the Olympic hosts.
Saturday’s (Sunday in Manila) finals against Germany — the side that has inspired much soul searching for Brazil since a 7-1 humiliation on home soil at the 2014 World Cup — in front of a full house at Rio’s iconic Maracana offers the chance to win Brazil’s most desired medal of the Games.
The embarrassment suffered two years ago only deepened the need for football-mad Brazil to right a perceived historical wrong at their own Games.
Olympic gold is the only football honour to have escaped five-time world champions Brazil. The legendary Ronaldo tried in 1996 and Ronaldinho in 2008 with both having to settle for bronze.
Neymar went one better in grabbing silver four years ago, but a shock defeat to Mexico in the final left Brazil feeling empty once more.
Now 24, Neymar is one of three overage players each country is allowed for the under-23 tournament.
So important was the need for Brazil’s best player of his generation to deliver in Rio that he was pulled from playing the Copa America Centenario in June to keep him fresh and Barcelona happy.
“Neymar is a monster. He has the gift of playing football, he delights everyone with his talent,” said Brazil coach Rogerio Micale.
Having the biggest star in the tournament allied to home advantage and rivals decimated by the fact European clubs didn’t want to release players so close to the start of their seasons, Brazil were expected to cruise to gold.
Yet, instead of restoring the feel-good factor, Neymar and co were booed from the field after drawing blanks in their opening two games against modest opposition in South Africa and Iraq.
Neymar’s ineffective and petulant performances saw him blasted by the press and public alike.
However, as quickly as he was beaten down, Neymar has been built back up as Brazil’s poster boy after scoring twice, including the fastest goal in Olympic history, in a 6-0 semi-final thrashing of Honduras to set up a rematch with Germany.
“Neymar has a lot of pressure on him. Right now he is enjoying a good moment, but a week ago he was suffering a difficult time with a lot of critics,” added Micale.
“Neymar deserves our gratitude because he pushes Brazil to a higher level.”
Talk of revenge is exaggerated. Not one player who took to the field in Belo Horizonte just over two years ago will play in the finals.
Yet, the symbolism of winning a final at the Maracana against the side that denied them that right two years ago will go a long way to healing the wounded pride of Brazilian football.
Neymar watched the 7-1 demolition from afar that day having broken two vertebrae in his back during a bruising quarterfinals with Colombia.
His absence saved him from the stinging criticism that followed. No such pardon will be offered on Saturday if Brazil’s golden boy doesn’t offer gold to a nation in need of a hero.