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Pop star Neymar delivers

NEYMAR-JAPANBRASÍLIA, Brazil, June 16 – The clock showed two minutes and 57 seconds as Luiz Felipe Scolari, who said before the Confederations Cup that Neymar needed protecting as the idol of 200 million Brazilians, afforded himself a tight smile of vindication.

Brazil coach Scolari’s policy of simultaneously playing “good cop-bad cop” with the 21-year-old — effusively praising his performances but also pointedly demanding he be “a team player” — paid an early dividend Saturday as the Barcelona-bound forward struck a brilliant goal to underpin a 3-0 victory over Japan.

If the half-volley finish, which ended a goal drought of nine matches for former club Santos and the Selacao, was rip-roaringly brilliant, it was not the product of one man.

It was a glowing example of the team ethic in which Scolari takes such pride, for all that he and his compatriots have been weaned on individual magic down the decades.

Real Madrid defender Marcelo crossed languidly from the left and in-form number nine Fred chested down, rather than look for a sixth goal in his last seven appearances for his country, allowing Neymar to crunch home an unstoppable drive from 20 metres into the top corner of Eiji Kawashima’s net.

“It all happened in a flash,” said Neymar. “Fred collected the ball and laid it off, I connected full on and happily the ball found the target.

“I am very happy to score and help Brazil to achieve a victory,” said the spiky-haired star, substituted with some 20 minutes remaining after picking up a knock.

Pele’s exalted 1958-1970 reign as O Dez (number ten) for Brazil created a mythical shirt which has hung heavy on the shoulders of those others who have worn it since.

Neymar himself has just switched from 11 to 10.

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Of the switch he says: “The number doesn’t matter one jot — what does is the Brazil shirt.”

The starlet rounded angrily on the media ahead of Saturday’s game by insisting that the Neymar who plays for Brazil and the variant who starred for Santos could not play exactly the same way.

He would not change his style, while Scolari said the player always did as he was asked for the national side.

“If I am called into the Brazil squad on the basis of how I have been playing for Santos then I must be doing something right, whether I score goals or not,” he remarked in midweek.

“I just play my normal game — I have never changed the way I play, be it for club or national team.”

His goal aside, Neymar was a true thorn in the side of the Japanese defence and it took a rough challenge from Japan skipper Makoto Hasebe, which earned a booking in first-half injury time, to prevent him from doing even more damage.

Paulinho and Jo added the gloss with two further goals but it was Neymar who took away the man of the match accolade as Brazil made a convincing start.

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