RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Most Brazilian players were already back in the locker room when Neymar rushed across the field at Maracana Stadium to celebrate with the fans.
Shirtless, Neymar raised his arms toward the stands. He pumped his fists as the crowd chanted his name. He pointed back at the fans, as if thanking them, drawing even louder cheers.
The Olympic host nation is once again embracing its most talented son.
Neymar had just scored two goals Wednesday — including the fastest one in Olympic history, just 15 seconds into the game — to lead Brazil to a 6-0 rout of Honduras in the semifinals and keep alive its hopes of winning Olympic soccer gold for the first time.
The 24-year-old striker is vital for Brazil at the Rio Olympics and has regained the trust of the fans after a struggling start. Neymar’s brilliant display against Honduras helped Brazil reach Saturday’s final against Germany. Besides the early goal, he converted a penalty kick in injury time after controlling the Brazilian offense throughout the game.
“This is the Neymar that we like to see on the field,” said 38-year-old Brazilian fan Andre Gustavo Correa, speaking outside the Maracana. “We need him to have a chance to win this gold! Without him playing the way he is playing, I don’t think this team would have been in the final.”
Brazilian fans had jeered and mocked Neymar after disappointing performances in the first two Olympic games — scoreless draws against South Africa and Iraq.
But his recent level of play — victories over Denmark in the group stage, Colombia in the quarterfinals, and Honduras in the semis — has been more than enough to bring the fans back to his side.
“I would say, in the good sense, that Neymar is a monster,” Brazil coach Rogerio Micale said. “He has a gift for playing football. He delights absolutely everyone with his talent. There are external factors that influence the way players develop and I think it is an opportunity to study what happened to him to see if we can replicate that with other players.”
His coach thinks Neymar is a disrupting force for other teams.
“He’s the kind of player that when he is on a team, he kind of upsets the balance in a positive way,” Micale said. “I think he is very happy on the team. The team has embraced him. He is living through a positive period as opposed to a week ago, when there was a lot of demands and pressure on him. I think we need to respect him and have him on our side.”
Neymar arrived as one of the biggest stars of the Rio de Janeiro Games after skipping the Copa America to take on the responsibility of leading Brazil at its home Olympics. The Barcelona player was on the 2012 team that lost the Olympic final to Mexico in London.
He was also on the national team eliminated by Germany’s senior squad after an embarrassing 7-1 loss in World Cup semifinals two years ago, although he didn’t play because of a back injury sustained in the quarterfinals against Colombia.
That humiliating loss to Germany has scarred the Brazilian psyche. With Neymar on the field this time, everyone is hoping for a different outcome Saturday when the same two nations meet at the Maracana.
“For the time being, we have only the silver achieved,” Micale said. “But I still believe in Brazilian football. And when you have a star like Neymar, you have to be grateful, because he is the type of player that pushes Brazil to a higher level.”