Rio de Janeiro – James Rodriguez and Neymar showed the bright and sporting side of individual South American football talent in Saturday’s last 16 matches at the World Cup in stark contrast to the furore sparked by the Luis Suarez biting incident.
The fresh-faced 22-year-old Rodriguez – who has lived up to the mantle of being “El Pibe Nuevo” (the new kid) as successor to Colombian playmaking great Carlos Valderrama – scored a double including a wonder-goal to see off South American champions Uruguay 2-0 and take his tally to five for the finals.
Rodriguez has shown maturity beyond his years in assuming the responsibility of inspring the team which had been left devastated prior to the finals when iconic striker Radamel Falcao was ruled out because of injury.
Rodriguez – who like Falcao plays for big spending French championship runners-up Monaco – earned high praise from a gracious Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez.
“For me, special talents are those who do things that are completely out of the ordinary,” said Tabarez.
“Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez – they do things because they have certain gifts that make them special.”
Tabarez refused to blame his side’s defeat on their being distracted by defending Suarez over the biting incident that resulted in his expulsion from the finals, a four-month global ban from world football, a nine game international ban and a six figure dollar fine.
The team did not make a protest when they lined up for the match but showed their solidarity by laying out his kit in the dressing-room prior to it.
“I don’t know what energy we could have lost,” said Tabarez.
“We simply accepted that he was suspended. We criticised the excessive nature of the sanction, which was very subjective, it’s true, but it’s the feeling of an entire people who follow football
“We tried to defend him, as should be done. He’s part of our group and pursuing the same objectives, but when he was no longer able to be with us, that was the end of that.”
Neymar came into the finals under enormous pressure after a mixed debut season with Barcelona.
However, he also showed that at 22 he can handle it as he tucked away the penultimate penalty in the shootout with Chile, who had more than matched them during 120 tense but absorbing minutes that ended in a 1-1 draw.
That gave the hosts a 3-2 lead in the shootout and put the pressure on Chile’s final penalty taker Gonzalo Jara.
His effort cannoned off the post and across the face of goal to keep alive the dreams of 200 million Brazilians that they can land their sixth world title on home turf.
“He is 22 but he plays as if he were 35,” purred Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari when asked about Neymar’s pressure spot-kick.
“He handles the pressure naturally. He is so strong mentally and you could see even when we was 17 or 18 that he was ready.”
The striker, who has scored an already remarkable tally of 35 goals in 53 appearances for his country, insisted that he played without fear despite the pressure on him and his team throughout.
“I felt no fear. Fear removes the desire to win. We knew that we would be playing a great team, but there was no fear,” he said.
Sunday’s matches throw up two intriguing clashes.
The Dutch will be looking to continue their impressive run after three wins in the group stage as they play Mexico, who showed their mettle by holding Brazil to a scoreless draw in the group stage.
The other game pits the surprise packages of the first round Costa Rica, who beat Uruguay and Italy and drew with England to top the group, against the obdurate Greeks, with both bidding for a first ever appearance in the World Cup quarter-finals. – Sapa-AFP