If the pole vaulter Thiago Braz da Silva had become the hero of Brazil after his shock golden medal win on Monday night he can step back into the shadows now. Brazil is a football nation. And Neymar is the only name on anyone’s lips in Rio right now.
The Barcelona forward guided his country to a 6-0 hammering of Honduras here in the magical Maracana on Wednesday that has Brazil one step from winning medals to match their iconic shirts. Amazingly, they have never won Olympic gold before.
Neymar, of course, scored the first and the last. Gabriel Jesus added two and Marquinhos and Luan the fourth and fifth in the second half. It all helped to erase the memory of Brazil’s women’s team losing to Sweden on penalties on Tuesday at the same stage.
There is another memory Brazil would like to erase: losing to Germany 7-1 in the World Cup two years ago on home turf and they will have the chance to go some way towards that when they meet the Germans - who beat Nigeria in the other semi - in Saturday's final.
It took Neymar all of 15 seconds to get the ball rolling and the party started when he hassled the Honduran defender Johnny Palacios, brother of Wilson, into undercooking a backpass to Luis Lopez. The goalkeeper rushed out, got to the ball first but could only hack into the Brazilian captain and watch as it bobble in slow-motion back into his net. The crowd in the Maracana, still buzzing from singing the national anthem, erupted as one.
Neymar, not one to miss out on adding a dash of drama, picked himself up, celebrated, fell down, writhed in agony and was carried off on a stretcher. A minute later he ran back on to a huge cheer and was soon buzzing around like a little yellow wasp again.
Every time he picked up the ball, which was often given Brazil’s dominance, movement and trickery that created oceans of space on the Maracana turf, the roar of expectation around the stadium rose. He feinted, dummied, dived, roll the ball this way and that as he teased the Hondurans mercilessly. The Maracana loved it. “Ole, ole, ole, ole. Neymar, Neymar,” the crowd sang on a loop.
Honduran defenders, Allans Vargas in particular, resorted to kicking lumps out of the No 10, standing on his fingers and pulling his shirt whenever he left one of them for dead with his latest drag-back-push.
But this Brazil are not a one-man team, not quite. And they look so much more energised than the sorry outfit that lost to Germany in the World Cup. A defeat that still haunts them and their fans. Gold may help to heal that wound. The bulk of Hulk is gone and Gabriel Jesus, who Manchester City have signed for £27m from Palmeiras where he will carry on playing until December, was superb as was Luan, the Gremio forward. The golden trio tormented Honduras all afternoon.
Brazil started the tournament with a pair of 0-0 draws against South Africa and Iraq - the pressure of a home Games seemed to be stifling then. They then adopted a 4-2-4 formation and smashed Denmark 4-0 and Colombia 2-0. On a red hot afternoon in Rio – helped by the early goal no doubt – they played with freedom and panache far removed from the early tournament tenseness.
Honduras, who only had Antony Lozano of Tenerife who does not earn his corn playing at home, took up a 5-4-1 formation but to no avail. On 24 minutes, Brazil doubled the lead, Luan timing his pass through the ragged Honduran backline to perfection for Jesus to run on to. The No 11 placed the ball past the onrushing Lopez with the outside of his right boot.
On 35 minutes, Neymar found space on the half-way line and fed the ball inside the Honduran right-back Marcelo Pereira and Jesus was off again. He lifted the ball over the keeper into the top left corner for 3-0. Cue more bedlam.
Luan should have scored at the start of the second half when played in behind the Honduran defence again only for Lopez to save but No 4 was not long in coming thanks to No 4. Marquinhos, the Paris St-Germain centre-half, was all alone at a corner but failed to volley the cross in. The ball, though, stuck under his feet and he swept it home. Honduras were not just caught napping but seemed to be in the middle of a deep sleep.
Substitute Felipe Anderson squared for Luan to add the fifth in the 79th minute before Weverton in the Brazil goal saved from Alberth Elis. But Neymar wanted the last word – and he had it, tucking away a penalty after a stuttering run-up in the last minute. He ran to the crowd, mimed scoring a three-pointer in basketball and milked the applause.
Brazil have not had the best home Olympics, the traditional spike has not been seen. Should Neymar and friends win this, though, all that will be forgiven. And that Germany defeat of two years ago, well, it will recede further into the distance.
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