By Tom Webber
The days leading up to the opening of the Confederations Cup may well have been marred by protests in some of Brazil's biggest cities, but the nation was unified in joy and relief as Neymar opened the competition with a bang and propelled the Selecao to a convincing 3-0 victory against Japan.
Homeless activists highlighted the endemic social problems by burning tyres on a road up to the Mane Garrincha on the eve of the tournament's opening and some of that discontentment seemed to have filtered into the stadium. The pre-match speeches from Sepp Blatter and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff were met with boos and jeers, but any sense that things were already going awry were quickly vanquished by another national icon: Neymar.
The 21-year-old sent the audience wild with a stunning goal inside of three minutes. Having spun his marker 25 yards from goal, Neymar rifled Fred's cushioned knock-down into the top corner with a scintillating volley that arrowed into the top corner of the net. It was the perfect start.
|'NEYMAR LEFT HIS MARK: KAGAWA DID NOT'
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"Shinji Kagawa won a Premier League medal, but was honest in pointing out how his season could and should have been better. In view of such candid words, most of his fans hoped for a much more convincing performance versus Brazil.
The Sao Paulo-born starlet Neymar may not have been outstanding but left his mark on the game. Kagawa did not. And with the Manchester United man disappointing, the solidity of Yasuhito Endo and the endeavour of Keisuke Honda was wasted.
It wasn’t all negative for Japan: less than a year ago they conceded four to Brazil. But to compete at this level they need all their best players to fulfill their promises."Cesare Polenghi
The early strike not only eased the pressure on his team-mates, but also of that which had been heaped upon his shoulders in the build up to the competition. He had finally delivered a goal on a big occasion for his country. Indeed, the 21-year-old now holds a record of three goals in his five competitive outings for the Selecao.
With the pre-match tension dispelled, the enthusiasm felt for the day finally returned and the crowd were enraptured every time Neymar touched the ball from then on. A dribble down the left turned the stadium into a cauldron of delighted screams and the virtuoso forward responded by encouraging the fans to make even more noise.
Supporters were unrelenting in their adoration of the 21-year-old, going as far as to boo Luiz Felipe Scolari's decision to replace him with Paris Saint-Germain's Lucas Moura with little over 15 minutes remaining.
It was a far cry from the scenes of late April, when Neymar claimed he was "bored" of supporters booing his performances for the national team following another underwhelming display in the 2-2 friendly draw with China.
The damage had already been done though, with Paulinho adding a second shortly after the interval and Jo wrapping the win up with his first goal for Brazil in stoppage time.
While he may not have maintained that explosive start throughout the whole game, Neymar was awarded the man of the match award by Fifa and was clearly delighted after the game: "I am very happy for everything that happened, for the game, not only mine, but of the entire team," he told TV Globo.
Neymar will now be expected to build on that performance and offer something similar against Mexico on Wednesday. Even if it is not quite as spectacular, the hope will be that he can move on from his difficult start to the year and return to giving more consistent high-quality performances. Ending a run of nine games for club and country without finding the net will go some way to helping him do just that.
Yet although the Canarinha were deserving of their win some worrying issues remain. Japan may have only had 37 per cent possession, but the ease at which they cut through the hosts' defence leaves some cause for concern.
The full-back duo of Marcelo and Dani Alves saw the space in behind them exposed too regularly, and combined with a midfield pair of Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo that lost shape too often, the signs are there of a team who will be vulnerable to the counterattack. Scolari, therefore, may require his men to show more restraint and positional awareness against even sterner opposition.
Though the rain came down towards the end of the game in Brasilia, Brazilian spirits will not have been dampened. The afternoon belonged to Neymar and fans will be thirsty for more when their side take to the field against Mexico in Fortaleza on Wednesday.
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