RIO DE JANEIRO — Neymar arrived at the Confederations Cup following lackluster performances in Brazil’s famous yellow jersey. With three goals in four matches, he’s helped the hosts reach Sunday’s final against world and European champion Spain and can boost his stature even more before joining Barcelona next month.
The 21-year-old forward was voted man of the match in his team’s first three games and played a key role in 2-1 semifinal win over Uruguay.
“Barcelona must be beaming seeing what he has been doing here,” Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. “He has been playing well, making a difference against European defenders.”
Wearing the No. 10 jersey made famous by Pele, Neymar opened the scoring for Brazil in the opener against Japan and also in the second match against Mexico, both times with remarkable goals. He netted his third with a free kick against Italy and assisted on both Brazil goals against Uruguay.
“I’m really happy with how things have turned out for me and for the national team so far,” Neymar said Friday. “We only have one match left and I hope we can play well to finish off with the title.”
Neymar attracted attention with great performances with Santos in Brazil, but critics were quick to downplay his potential after he failed to replicate that same success with the national team.
He was often criticized for diving too much, an issue that came up again during the Confederations Cup when Uruguay captain Diego Lugano accused the Neymar of trying to “fool the referees and the rivals.”
The remarks prompted Brazil’s soccer federation to put out a lengthy statement in the player’s defense.
“It’s worth repeating that Neymar doesn’t need to resort to diving to play the type of football that is enchanting the world,” the federation said.
Like many attackers, Neymar has gone to ground easily during this tournament but also has looked more muscular and resistant to the attentions of some of Europe’s best defenders.
Neymar had been struggling before announcing his move to Barcelona. He hadn’t scored in nine matches.
The Confederations Cup is his third significant competition with the national team. After helping Brazil’s under-20s win the South American championship in 2011, he was part of the Selecao that lost to Paraguay in the quarterfinals of that year’s Copa America. Then he played for Brazil’s team that lost the final of last year’s Olympics to Mexico, a tournament of mostly under-23 players.
Neymar was among the players loudly jeered by home fans after playing poorly against Chile in a 2-2 exhibition this year.
“Neymar is our idol. He is the people’s idol,” Scolari said. “He has had a nice string of matches, and everybody is happy about that. It’s important for him to be going through all of these different situations with Brazil because it’s something that will make him even better in the future.”
On Sunday, he’ll be facing future Barcelona teammates Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba.
“I’m anxious already, This is a match that can stay with me for the rest of my life. I will be defending my country, with the entire world watching,” Neymar said. “The Brazilian fans are completely behind us now. They are supporting us no matter what and hopefully they will be our 12th player again on Sunday to help us win this title.” ‘
Follow Tales Azzoni at http://twitter.com/tazzoni