Neymar lights up Cup opener
SAO PAULO, Brazil (AFP) — He is small of stature and slight of build, but Neymar showed he could carry the hopes of a troubled nation with an electrifying performance in Brazil's World Cup opener.
With pressure piled on his young shoulders, it would have been easy for Neymar to crumble, but instead the 22-year-old seized the moment with two goals in the 3-1 win over Croatia.
Helped by a large slice of luck, Neymar's dragged shot in the first half trundled in off the Croatian post, before he struck an awful penalty that somehow Stipe Pletikosa failed to keep out.
Those details, as well as the fact that the penalty was highly debatable, did not trouble the 60,000-plus crowd which exploded in delight as fireworks detonated outside.
"This is a dream come true, much more than I imagined," Neymar said afterwards. "But more important than anything is that our team won."
Given the situation in Brazil, with ambivalence towards the World Cup and police tear-gassing protesters in Sao Paulo just hours earlier, the value of those goals could be high.
When President Dilma Rousseff was seen on the big screen celebrating Neymar's second goal, the crowd responded with a foul-mouthed chant.
Protests around the country over the World Cup's huge price have put a question mark over whether the tournament would be a success, despite the fact it is being played in football's spiritual home.
Neymar is Brazil's undisputed star, adored for repeatedly snubbing European clubs before joining Barcelona and promoted so efficiently that the phenomenon is known as "Neymarketing".
He played like he had a point to prove, using his quick footwork to beat defenders and putting in a dangerous cross that could have brought the opening goal.
Brazil went 1-0 down through Marcelo's own goal in the 11th minute, and when Neymar was booked near the half-hour it looked like the evening could finish disastrously for the hosts.
But almost immediately, Oscar found Neymar with space to run and his driven, left-foot shot, despite not being cleanly hit, had the accuracy to beat a diving Pletikosa.
And when Fred won a controversial penalty in the second half, Neymar got his second despite theatrically checking his run-up and hitting a shot well within the goalkeeper's reach.
At the age of just 22, it brought his astonishing tally of goals for Brazil up to 33 in 50 games.
After the match, wearing a baseball cap, earrings and bright green backpack, he gave thanks for the crowd support which included a spine-tingling pre-game rendition of the national anthem.
"I have to give congratulations for the support, it motivated us a lot. They kept us going the whole time, and we needed it," he said.
And Neymar did his best to quash the impression that he is not out to dominate the tournament.
"I'm not focused on being the best in the tournament, the highest goal-scorer... what I want is to win the championship," he said.