It took just 15 seconds for the weight of a nation to be lifted from the shoulders of Brazilian soccer superstar Neymar and his Olympic teammates Wednesday afternoon.
The final notes of the national anthems were still echoing through iconic Maracana Stadium, and fans who had been stuck in traffic were settling into their seats when Neymar’s opportunistic goal off a Honduran defensive blunder set the tone for a lopsided 6-0 semifinal victory that puts Brazil one win away from its only Olympic soccer gold medal in history.
Neymar scored three goals, had three assists and punctuated the Brazilian party with a penalty kick in added time. A sea of yellow serenaded the 24-year-old with “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Ney-mar! Ney-mar!” Brazil will face Germany in the final on Saturday, a rematch of the 2014 World Cup semifinal that Germany won 7-1, a loss that still haunts Brazilian players and fans.
After Wednesday’s game, Brazil coach Rogerio Micale tried to explain what Neymar means to the team.
“He is a monster, in a good way,” Micale said. “He has a gift of playing football and delights everyone with his talent. There are external influences that got him here, and we have to see if we can study that and replicate it with other players. There are a lot of pressures and demands on him, but he is handling it in a positive way.
“Brazilian players are not so dead. I still believe in Brazilian football. We have to be grateful for Neymar. He pushes Brazilian soccer to another level.”
The thermostat read 87 degrees. The sun was scorching, as was the heat on the Brazilian players. A day after their women’s team was eliminated by Sweden, all eyes were on the men.
The host Brazilians entered this tournament desperate for redemption after their humiliating exit from the 2014 World Cup. This is a country where even dogs wear Neymar jerseys, where one need not watch a game on TV to know when Brazil scores because the collective fan roar and car horn honking serves as play-by-play.
Anything less than a gold medal to match their golden shirts would be considered a failure.
Neymar was injured and unable to play in that 2014 World Cup semifinal, so he feels a strong obligation to deliver Olympic gold to his country. The Brazilian federation took this Olympics so seriously that it asked Neymar to skip the Copa America Centenario earlier this summer and focus all his energy on these two weeks.
Brazil’s offense sputtered at the start of these Games, with scoreless ties against South Africa and Iraq. Panic began to set in among the fans and Brazilian media. The host team was on the brink of elimination heading into its final group-stage game against Denmark. But a 4-0 victory got things rolling, and a 2-0 win over Colombia quelled the naysayers.
After Wednesday’s win, Brazil has outscored its Olympic opponents 12-0.
Neymar got things started by pressuring Honduran defender Johnny Palacios (younger brother of Miami FC midfielder Wilson) into making a weak back pass to goalkeeper Luis Lopez. The keeper rushed out, but Neymar pounced on the ball, and it ricocheted off Lopez into the net.
Neymar fell hard on the play, got up to celebrate and then slumped back down, writhing in apparent pain. He was carried off on a stretcher, but within a few minutes was back on the field carving his way through the Honduras defense.
Gabriel Jesus, the 19-year-old Manchester City-bound forward, scored in the 26th and 35th minutes, the first off a through ball by Luan and the second off an assist by Neymar.
Six minutes into the second half, an unmarked Marquinhos got on the end of a Neymar corner kick and scored easily from close range. Luan made it 5-0 in the 77th minute. And Neymar scored the sixth on a penalty kick after Luan was taken down by Palacios. Neymar went through the interview zone without speaking, offering just a wave and smile to the throng of reporters.
Honduras came into the game with high hopes after surviving a group that included Argentina and Portugal. Los Catrachos had booked their flights home assuming they’d be out after the group stage but changed their plans and beat South Korea in the quarters. Wednesday was a different story.
“It was a disastrous performance, many grave mistakes, and I have to take responsibility,” said Honduran coach Jorge Luis Pinto, a native of Colombia who said he has never had a team give up six goals in his 32-year career. “Of course Brazil played well, took advantage and scored the goals. In second half, even though we were down 3-0, we tried to attack more. Unfortunately, we made a mortal mistake for the fourth goal and lost our composure.”
He said he will try to rally his team and get it prepared for the bronze-medal game Saturday against Nigeria, which lost 2-0 to Germany. It would be the first Olympic medal for Honduras.
Medals were awarded in nine sports Wednesday, from sailing in the Guanabara Bay to equestrian in Diodoro to track and field at Olympic Stadium. But for most Brazilians, their attention was on one place and one place only — Maracana.
“We knew there was going to be a lot of pressure on this team,” Micale said. “This final stretch we are exhibiting good football, beautiful football, which has been our trademark. We realize this is not enough. We must keep aspiring to reach our goal.”