Now he’s a national hero — and an Olympic champion.
Neymar buried the winning kick of a penalty shootout against Germany on Saturday night at Maracana Stadium, sending all of Brazil into a boisterous celebration.
The cheering could be heard down Rio’s famed Copacabana Beach, where fans yelled out “Campeoes!” Champions!
Neymar sunk to the field on his knees as his teammates engulfed him. He lay on the ground for several long moments while they celebrated, sobbing.
“This is one of the happiest things that have happened to me,” he said moments later.
It was Brazil’s first gold medal and it came on home soil. For Neymar, it was a seminal moment.
Some were already asking whether Neymar’s name should be added to the list of Brazil’s greats, joining the Pele, Zico and “the phenomenon” Ronaldo.
Brazil coach Rogerio Micale essentially said it was too soon to put Neymar in that realm, suggesting his next step is a World Cup title.
But he nonetheless had great praise for the charismatic 24-year-old striker who plays for Barcelona and is considered among the best current players in the world.
Neymar has been an integral part in Barcelona’s recent success, along with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
“He’s a leader on the national team. Dedicated,” Micale said through a translator. “Now that we’ve finished this tournament, I have the best possible impression of Neymar. The whole team does.”
The men’s soccer tournament attracted most of the attention of Brazilian fans at the Olympics. The country’s football federation took the Olympic tournament very seriously, bringing Neymar and many talented youngsters who are expected to be in the main squad in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Neymar eschewed the Copa America to focus on the Rio Games. The men’s Olympic tournament is contested among under-23 teams, but they can each bring three players from the senior national team.
Still, the Olympics started disastrously for the hosts. Brazil struggled with scoreless draws against South Africa and Iraq were even in danger of missing out on the knockout round.
Neymar was heavily criticised by soccer-crazy Brazilians who saw the women’s national team, and particularly star Marta, off to a fast start in contrast.
There were fans who crossed off Neymar’s name on their No. 10 jerseys and wrote in Marta instead. Neymar was taunted with fans shouting Marta’s name at his matches, while Marta was honoured with fans chanting “Better Than Neymar!” at hers.
With Neymar as captain, Brazil turned its tournament around. First came a decisive 4-0 victory over Denmark to close out the group, followed by a 2-0 victory over Colombia in the quarter-finals.
Neymar really made it known that Brazil was back with a 6-0 victory over Honduras in the semis. He had two goals — including one only 15 seconds into the match for the fastest goal in Olympic history.
“We needed to respond to the Brazilian people. Say something to the people and to the football community, by doing something different,” Micale said. “We did that. We won. We’re skilled and competent. We responded as necessary and we did this in the short time that was available to us.”
As for the comparison with Marta, that was unfair. Marta is considered one of her sport’s greatest players ever: She is a five-time FIFA World Player of the Year.
“That’s just a part of the Brazilian culture,” Micale said. “That’s the way we are. We love and hate from one day to the next. We go to extremes. People go back and forth. But I’m truly happy to be a Brazilian.”
Saturday night’s victory was not only Neymar’s redemption, it was a nation’s.
It came two years after an embarrassing 7-1 home loss to Germany’s senior team in the World Cup semi-finals at home. Brazil was also coming off a demoralising elimination in the group stage of this year’s Copa America.
Neymar was on the World Cup team but didn’t play against Germany because of a back injury sustained in the quarter-finals against Colombia.
With his penalty kick in the Olympic final, Neymar helped ease some of that lingering bitterness. He also countered the doubters who dogged him early in the games.
“We went through difficult moments in the beginning of the competition, we were criticised,” he said, “and we answered on the field, with soccer.”