It all happened in a flash, three minutes in. The whole crowd seemed to hold their breath as Fred, positioned just outside the box, chested down Marcelo’s cross and into the path of the oncoming Neymar, who arched his body to the left and let fly with a sweetly struck half-volley.
In conversation with FIFA.com after his side’s 3-0 defeat of Japan, the Brazil ace picked up the story: “You know straightaway when you’ve hit the ball right or not, and I knew I’d got hold of it well. I just waited to see if the ball went in, and it did.”
Neymar looked on with satisfaction as the ball arrowed into the top left-hand corner of Eiji Kawashima’s goal, leaving the Japanese keeper with no chance.
After teeing up his team-mate, Fred was in the perfect position to see the whole move, the Fluminense striker turning to watch Neymar’s effort fly goalwards and bracing himself in case it flew back towards him from the woodwork.
“When I laid the ball off to him I saw him shaping to shoot,” Fred told FIFA.com. “I could see that he struck it really well and I kept my eye on the ball to see if it would beat the goalkeeper or hit the bar and bounce back towards me. I got a good look at it and I can tell you it was a great goal.”
Japan defender Maya Yoshida also had an excellent view. As someone who plays his club football for Southampton in the English Premier League, Yoshida is no stranger to seeing flamboyant pieces of skill. Though disappointed to be on the losing side on Saturday, he had nothing but admiration for Neymar’s stunning strike.
“Obviously we weren’t expecting a shot like that,” he said afterwards. “But it was a fantastic goal. A lot of technique went into that. It was a very, very special goal.”
For the former Santos prodigy it was an important strike for many reasons. Coming with only three minutes on the clock, it gave his team a welcome confidence boost at the start of a competition they are hosting. With expectations high as they stepped out on to the pitch, the Brazilians had their nerves calmed almost straightaway.
On a personal level it also allowed the goalscorer to allay the fears of fans and media alike, concerned at his run of nine games without finding the back of the net. During that barren sequence Neymar had repeatedly stressed that what really mattered was the team’s results, adding that he felt he was fulfilling his role in the side, a view backed by his coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. As far as the player was concerned, there was nothing to worry about.
He proved that with his goal and superb all-round performance and ball control, which had the fans on their feet. Was it a relief for him then, to be finally back on song? “It was fantastic,” came the reply. “It was a special day. The team performed really well and played a great game, and the fans were behind us all the way. All I can say is that the most important thing is not who scores but who contributes to A Seleção. That said, I am obviously very happy at scoring such a nice goal and helping the team out.”
It was such a nice goal, in fact, that like Fred and Yoshida, every member of the 67,000-crowd at the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha on Saturday will remember the moment they held their breaths for a split second and watched it happen before their eyes.