Sports

Neymar lifts Brazil to win at soccer-mad Sun Life

It sure didn’t look or sound like a meaningless friendly match Friday night at Sun Life Stadium.

A sellout crowd of 73,429 — largest ever for soccer in Florida — showed up ready to party for a World Cup quarterfinal rematch between star-studded South American rivals Brazil and Colombia.

It was evident long before Brazil’s 1-0 victory that this was no ordinary exhibition.

Electronic signs along I-95 announced “Soccer Sold Out’’ as cars with giant flapping Colombian and Brazilian flags drove by. Outside the stadium, ticket windows had signs rarely seen here during football season: SOLD OUT. WILL CALL ONLY.

A sea of yellow and red descended on the stadium as fans had a rare opportunity to see international superstars Neymar, Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and 31 players who participated in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The game was a rematch of the contentious World Cup quarterfinal in Fortaleza, which Brazil won 2-1.

In that match, a tournament-high 56 fouls were called, and Neymar left the field on a stretcher after fracturing his spine when airborne Colombian defender Camilo Zuniga landed on the slender Brazilian icon. Friday marked Neymar’s first game back in a Brazilian jersey, and he spent considerable time rolling on the ground, writhing in pain (or at least pretending he was in pain) as Colombian fans booed and whistled.

Colombian midfielder Juan Cuadrado was sent off with a second yellow card in the 49th minute after a clumsy challenge on Neymar from behind. A few minutes later, Neymar was down again, resulting in a Brazil free kick that was saved by Colombian goalkeeper David Ospina.

But Neymar, wearing the captain’s armband in place of the injured Thiago Silva, wound up the hero of the night after scoring the lone goal on a free kick in the 83rd minute. His arching right-footed shot bounced off the right post and into the net, and the Barcelona star was immediately engulfed by his jubilant teammates.

Much to the dismay of Los Cafeteros fans (and others who wanted to see all the biggest names), Colombian standout Falcao spent most of the match on the bench. He finally entered in the 77th minute, replacing Rodriguez, the World Cup Golden Boot winner, who had a quiet night.

Falcao signed a highly publicized loan from AS Monaco to Manchester United early Tuesday. The 28-year-old striker was eager to play in his national team shirt again after missing the World Cup following knee surgery. Many Colombian fans showed up wearing his replica jerseys, and they chanted his name in the 62nd minute, begging for his inclusion.

Colombia coach Jose Pekerman chose to rest Falcao until late in the match, a decision that surely sat well with Manchester United management, which is hoping he is fit and ready to play against Queens Park Rangers next weekend.

Friday’s match was very physical, with eight yellow cards issued. Colombia was seeking revenge for the quarterfinal loss. Brazil was determined to redeem itself after a humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the World Cup semifinal and a 3-0 loss to the Netherlands in the third-place game.

The Colombian roster Friday featured 21 of the 23 players from the World Cup. Brazil’s squad looked considerably different, with just 10 remaining.

The match marked the start of Dunga’s second stint as coach. Dunga played on Brazil’s 1994 World Cup champion team, coached the team in 2010 and has been called upon again to try to restore the Brazilian glory days.

When the team buses arrived at the stadium Friday night led by heavy police escorts, the parking lots erupted.

Brazilian dancers in feather headdresses and tiny bikinis swiveled their hips as big crowds gathered to watch. Colombian fans, who outnumbered the Brazilians, showed up in traditional Sombreros “Vueltiao’’ (turned) and some were decked out in red-, yellow- and blue-feathered headpieces. Several Colombians were seen with variations of signs that read: “Eso Si Fue Gol de Mario Yepes!” a reference to a disputed goal by Colombian captain Yepes that was disallowed in the World Cup quarterfinal loss to Brazil.

Friday’s 9 p.m. match began with a fireworks show, symbolic of the explosive soccer and noise to come over the next two hours. The stadium went dark for the team entrances, and The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” blared through the speakers as players came out of the tunnel.

The crowd topped the previous record of 71,124 set last November for a friendly between Brazil and Honduras.

Brazil won that match 5-0. This one was much closer.

Brazil had an apparent goal called back in the 24th minute and Oscar had a shot go wide left in the 32nd minute. Colombia had several scoring chances, but Brazil goalkeeper Jefferson – finally out of Julio Cesar’s shadow – made some big saves.

As fans filed out after the match, the stadium grounds crew was already at work readying the field for Saturday’s University of Miami football game against Florida A&M. No sellout for that one.

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