SAO PAULO (AP) — Neymar started the week facing criticism after a poor performance in a World Cup qualifying match and his suggestion that the next tournament in Qatar might be his last.
But the striker helped erase many of those thoughts by providing key elements in all of the Brazil goals in Thursday's 4-1 win against Uruguay.
The 29-year-old Neymar, who had a disappointing performance in Sunday's 0-0 draw at Colombia in the previous round. arrived in the northwest Brazilian city of Manaus on Monday with dozens of fans in front of the team's hotel. That would be the usual, were it not for a wave of criticism he has faced at home for months.
Neymar scored the opening goal against Uruguay after dribbling past goalkeeper Fernando Muslera. He then took the shot that allowed Raphinha to add the second. And then he provided two assists; one in a through pass to Raphinha and a cross that landed on the head of Gabriel Barbosa.
Midfielder Fred, who assisted Neymar on his goal, said Brazil players felt the difference in atmosphere since they arrived in Manaus. And that includes the team's star.
“These fans gave us support every day in the stadium, in the hotel. They bought all the tickets and it was an extra strength for us,” he said, referring to the attendance of 12,500, the maximum allowed by COVID-19 protocols in Brazil. “We want them to be here supporting us, giving this great energy again in the next matches,” he added.
Raphinha praised Neymar's performance on Thursday.
“Playing with Ney was very easy. I am a big fan of his, I take a lot of inspiration from him, in the way he plays and dribbles the opposition,” Raphinha said. “I watch a lot of his videos. To have played alongside is a dream coming true.”
Neymar also showed his reinvigorated happiness on social media.
On Instagram, he posted pictures celebrating his goal with teammate Lucas Paquetá, a montage to mark his 70th goal for Brazil and also a video of himself hugging his friend and Uruguay striker Luis Suárez.
“A giant by nature,” Neymar said in the caption of a picture of himself celebrating.
The Brazil star, who has been overshadowed by Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi's arrival at his club Paris Saint-Germain, once again dribbled past defenders with a smile on his face.
Before Neymar's showing against Uruguay, local fans were still accusing him of being in poor shape, failing in delivering the latest Copa America, focusing too much on his events off the pitch and, finally, of remaining mostly silent about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil.
Brazil coach Tite agreed that the first match in front of home fans boosted the team's morale after two lackluster performances. Neymar did not play in the 3-1 win against Venezuela due to a suspension.
“Thank you, Manaus. You had extraordinary human warmth with us," Tite said at a media conference. “With fans back in the stadium . . . celebrating when our bus arrived. It was beautiful. Maybe today's showing had to do a little with all this love, being welcome here."
Neymar will return to action with Brazil in November, when his team will qualify for the World Cup if it scores a home win over Colombia in the next round. A few days later he will face Messi's Argentina in San Juan.
Brazil leads qualifiers with 31 points in 11 matches, six ahead of second-place Argentina.
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Mauricio Savarese is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/msavarese