x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Confederations Cup: Brazil's Neymar is living up to the lofty expectation

Before he heads off to Barcelona, the 21-year-old Brazilian Neymar delivered in front of his home crowd at the Confederations Cup.

Brazil’s Fred, left, and Neymar celebrate a goal in the Confederations Cup final against Spain. Neymar scored four goals in the tournament. Vanderlei Almeida / AFP
Brazil’s Fred, left, and Neymar celebrate a goal in the Confederations Cup final against Spain. Neymar scored four goals in the tournament. Vanderlei Almeida / AFP

It could be the legend truly began here. Neymar has had to put up with the billing "the next Pele" almost since he made his debut for his country, in 2010, in the unlikely surroundings of East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Needless to say, the man born Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, scored and, in a country which demands footballing heroes, expectations soared.

"We played even better than expected," Neymar said after Sunday's Confederations Cup final demolition of world champions Spain. "I am really happy. We made a lot of people happy, but we must keep our feet on the ground."

Pele may have set the bar impossibly high; one thing Neymar could never do is win a World Cup at the age of 17. At that age he was just breaking into the side at Santos, Pele's old club. He also was unable to help Brazil win an Olympic football gold medal at last year's London Games.

Yet, as of Sunday, the Sao Paulo native can point to an international winner's medal after an impressive showing against Spain; he scored a superlative goal on the stroke of half time before a wonderful dummy allowed Fred to score the third and final goal.

The manner in which Neymar, 21, dismantled an admittedly below-par Spanish back line suggests the youngster has the self-belief to aspire to the Pele mantle.

The man himself said before the event that the current squad "are not good enough" to win top prizes, but with such impressive talent at their disposal Brazil will now start as favourites at a home World Cup next year.

By then, Neymar will have tasted the hard school that is Spain's Primera Liga with Barcelona, where he will start alongside Lionel Messi in a pairing that, if it works in tandem, will alarm every club in Spain and across Europe.

Despite signs of a suspect temperament early in his career – and a tendency to go to ground too easily, a criticism made only last week by the Uruguay captain Diego Lugano – Neymar has been maturing rapidly and in the past two weeks has slipped into the playmaker's role with some aplomb.

He arrived at the tournament on the back of a nine-game scoring drought but then delivered a tremendous finish inside the opening three minutes as the hosts started off their campaign with a 3-0 win over Japan in Brasilia.

Another goal and an assist followed against Mexico before a rocket of a free kick against Italy.

By then it was clear he was making a breakthrough. Before the tournament, his seemingly unlikely partnership with the forward Fred – much loved by coach Luiz Felipe Scolari – began to pay dividends

Life was tougher for the spiky-haired Neymar in a seat-of-the-pants semi-final win over Uruguay, but Fred and Paulinho assumed the scoring responsibilities that day and then against Spain Neymar and Fred dovetailed superbly.

In the process he outplayed men such as Andres Iniesta and Xavi, his teammates at Camp Nou next season.

"I respect and admire them very much. But today I was representing my country and family and had to give them a hard time," he said.

Neymar says playing in the Primera Liga could take him to a higher level.

"I am going to one of the biggest clubs in the world. I hope I adapt as quickly as possible and that next year I can have a great World Cup," he said.

Neymar was coy as to his feelings on the protests sweeping Brazil and which were going on outside the Maracana even as the team were taking apart their Spanish opponents.

"It is difficult to talk about the fights outside; it is bad and people can get injured. The celebrations were for those inside the stadium," he said.

However high he flies, after Sunday, even before this triumph the US magazine Sports Pro ranked him as the sports star with the most potential, ahead even of Messi and golfer Rory McIlroy.

"That's just part of the job. It is a responsibility to bear – but a nice one," Neymar said on learning of that praise.

Spain's Fernando Torres undeterred by loss in final

Spain’s 3-0 reverse to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final was a mere “blip” and they will be back in Brazil next year confidently chasing a second straight World Cup triumph, according to the forward Fernando Torres. The defeat ended Spain’s record run of 29 unbeaten competitive matches.

"Everybody thinks Spain should win every match and reach every final, but it’s not as easy as that," the Chelsea striker, said on fifa.com.

"This team doesn’t need a wake-up call, nor do we need a defeat to regain our motivation. If there is something positive to be taken from the match, it’s this: it’s confirmed something that we already knew, that it’s not going to be easy to beat Brazil on their own patch."

Spain top their World Cup qualifying group by a point from France and should qualify with ease for next year’s tournament.

"We have achieved something that no other team has ever done: won three major tournaments in a row. Next year we’re coming over here to make it four," added Torres.


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