Looks like it'll be Neymar's World Cup
Brazil's star thrills with fabulous free-kick and backheel assist
(Neymar 27, Dani Alves 40, Hulk 46, Willian 73)
A star is already born. But he might be made at the World Cup.
Neymar picked off Panama as if they were no more than a mild scab. His performance suggested he's capable of healing a fractured nation.
He illuminated a one-sided friendly yesterday morning (Singapore time) with an exquisite goal and an assist, but his country craves more, needs more. And Neymar appears content to play provider and peacemaker.
Whether it's confidence or youthful innocence, the 22-year-old appears indifferent to the demands of an agitated fan base.
Brazil are under a searing, oppressive spotlight to deliver. They must appease a protesting country and yet Neymar knocked the ball around like a kid on Copacabana Beach.
His play was fun to watch. And there was so much fun in his play.
Nothing fazes him. Nothing riles him. He plays above the fray, as if the trials and tribulations of the common man are somehow beneath his talent, not worthy of his time or attention.
Zinedine Zidane shared similar attributes; the aura of the authentic superstar; the men who make magic as a matter of routine.
Perhaps the Panamanians were hardly a suitable yardstick to test Neymar's World Cup credentials, but he displayed a similar indifference to the suffocating pressure surrounding last year's Confederations Cup final.
He squashed the Spaniards then. He played around with Panama yesterday. He'll treat Croatia no differently in their Group A opener next week.
Opponents' names are small print, a trivial concern for others to fuss over.
He lives in the moment, not the minutiae. It's all about Brazil.
When Neymar sees yellow, he sees red. The rather timid kitten of Barcelona's tiki-taka is replaced by a Brazilian beast.
The Selecao shirt acts as both bullet-proof vest and superhero costume. He is impervious to pressure, an unstoppable force for good. He delights in the audacious.
His free-kick finish in the 27th minute was a rare exhibit of beauty; a curled, flicked strike that spun over the wall before dipping violently below the crossbar.
When he performs, Neymar has a real sense of theatre, a taste for the flamboyant, the absurd even.
The backheel to Hulk for Brazil's third, after Dani Alves had rammed in the second, was straight from the school playground; the stuff you try with friends and a tennis ball.
Such showmanship is the reason a kid takes the tennis ball to school in the first place; the reason we watch the World Cup at such ungodly hours, to witness the truly gifted take out their box of tricks. And Neymar just couldn't help himself.
Aside from scoring his 31st goal in only 48 caps, he never stopped improvising. He dribbled. He nutmegged. He chipped cheeky crosses (all in one first-half move in fact).
He drove towards traumatised defenders on the left, the right and through the middle. When the Panamanians backpedalled, he profited.
He broke free late in the second half to thread a pass through to Maxwell, who set up fellow substitute Willian for a killer fourth.
He played to the crowd. He cajoled the crowd, literally, frequently calling on them to pump up the volume.
When he inflates expectations, he expects to feel the love. He lives for the adulation.
He's the perfect showman, even if he's not quite the perfect player.
Like Hulk, his defensive responsibilities were neglected; a weakness that could be punished by more incisive opponents than Panama.
But with Brazil's established back four expected to be Dani Alves, David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Marcelo, Neymar's reluctance to retreat is a minor source of irritation for Luiz Felipe Scolari but hardly a thorn in his side.
Central midfield is a greater concern. Panama enjoyed more possession than their lowly rankings deserved.
Paulinho or Fernandinho is expected to plug the gap when the World Cup kicks off.
It is Brazil's Group A opponents who face the bigger problem.
If Neymar slips into the second-striker role as he did so effectively in yesterday's friendly, then Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon will be the ones left in the hole.
Neymar is still finding his feet at Barcelona, but when he pulls on the Brazilian shirt, the samba starts. He dances. And his timing is impeccable.
The hosts are desperate for an entertaining distraction.
The mischief maker is primed and ready to top the bill.
Brazil need Neymar more than ever. So does the World Cup.
- BRAZIL: Julio Cesar, Dani Alves (Maicon 46), David Luiz (Henrique 70), Dante, Marcelo (Maxwell 46), Ramires (Hernanes 46), Oscar (Willian 63), Luis Gustavo, Fred (Jo 61), Neymar, Hulk
- PANAMA: Oscar McFarlane (Jose Calderon 57), Roman Torres (Harold Cummings 59), Adolfo Machado, Nahil Carroll (Rodriguez Carlos Ruben 67), Felipe Baloy, Gabriel, Armando Cooper (Gabriel Torres 56), Nicolas Munoz, Alberto Quintero (Jairo Jimenez 57), Amilcar Henriquez, Luis Tejada (Roberto Nurse 46)
I’ve been under pressure since I was a kid. I am ready for it.
— Brazil forward Neymar on the weight of expectations on him
Phil wants more
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari believes there is still room for improvement after their 4-0 thrashing of Panama yesterday morning (Singapore time).
The Selecao put on an impressive second-half showing after struggling in the earlier minutes and Scolari (above), who led Brazil to their last World Cup triumph in 2002, wants his charges to step it up as they target their sixth title.
"We still have a week and a half left," said Scolari, referring to Brazil's World Cup opener against Croatia next week.
"There's a good way to go. But keep calm, we'll get there. Today was reasonably better, but I am still demanding more.
"We had problems with the transition," he added. "It was off in the first 20 minutes and things could have been different against a better team.
"If I had to choose one half, it would be the second in which we showed more movement, better possession and more agility. I liked the end of the first half and the whole of the second."
Scolari also lavished praise on Neymar. Besides scoring the first goal, the Barcelona striker had a hand in another and was at the fulcrum of Brazil's play.
"Neymar is an athlete who does something different every day," said Scolari. "He improvises well, he is quick, agile and any coach is going to talk him up."
Neymar was injured twice this season, his first in Europe, and Scolari said he would play him again in their last friendly against Serbia on Saturday morning (Singapore time) to keep his momentum going.
Neymar's free-kick strike against Panama was his 200th career goal and 31st for the national team at just 22 years of age, underlining his potency. Scolari has warned his young star that he cannot get caught up in incidents.
"We're working on that aspect," he said. "If the opposition provokes him, he can't react, the one who has to take action is the referee."
Neymar brushed off the provocations and said he is ready to lead Brazil and deal with the weight of expectations. "I've been under pressure since I was a kid," he said. "I am ready for it."