Column: Chill, Brazil. You're still soccer's gold standard
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Fans wearing the familiar gold-and-green-trimmed shirts of Brazil's national team were still streaming up the ramp and into the Maracana Stadium when Neymar struck. All of 15 seconds had elapsed since the opening whistle.
As it turned out, there was no need to hurry, let alone worry. Whatever terrible toll these Olympics wind up extracting from this cash-strapped, soccer-mad nation, it's already clear that won't put a dent in the Selecao.
Its 6-0 semifinal win Wednesday over Honduras kept Brazil in pursuit of the Olympic gold medal - the one important international prize the only five-time World Cup champions have never won.
''I'm happy for the goals but the most important thing is that we made it to the final,'' said Gabriel Jesus. ''It was important to win like this, playing well and with a lot of goals.''
The locals expect them not just to win, but to do it with style, keeping faith with a long line of stars - beginning with Pele - who set the bar high with their commitment to play ''o jogo bonito (the beautiful game).'' By that standard, Neymar's opening tally was a comedy of errors.
Honduran defender Johnny Palacios' clumsy clearing attempt from the top of his goal box bounced off Neymar's shins and the slim forward kept his balance and followed it toward the net. Goalkeeper Luis Lopez rushed out, went to the ground and tried to spread himself, but his clearing attempt, too, bounced off Neymar and rolled slowly forward once more, this time into the net.
''We can admit now - we were all nervous when we came. The last game (against Mexico) was too close,'' said Rio native Marcio Salles.
Salles was wearing the jersey of former Brazilian player ''Hulk'' and dancing in the concourse afterward alongside his pals as samba music filtered through the stadium.
''But even when it was still only 1-0,'' Salles added, ''they showed confidence and then ... they honored this place and played as they should.''
At least Brazil's other two scores before halftime were artistic successes. Gabriel Jesus beat Lopez with the flick of his right boot after running onto a surgical cross from Luan in the 26th minute to make it 2-0; then he outraced a Honduran defender and scooped up a perfectly weighted pass from Neymar in the 35th , finishing the breakaway with a rocket into the roof of the net.
Footballers like Neymar, who draws his hefty paycheck from the Spanish giant Barcelona, are the country's most famous exports. At last count, there were more than 600 Brazilians employed in the top leagues in Europe, where the money is good and the living is much easier than back home.
Neymar left Brazil in 2013 as a 21-year-old and is one of three senior players on Brazil's team; Olympic rules require the remaining players to be 23 or younger. So while only four of the players on the roster currently play overseas, 10 more will likely be gone within the next two to three years. Prominent in that group are Garbiel Barbosa, known in these part as ''Gabigol'' and Gabriel Jesus, who signed Premier League powerhouse Manchester City.
By comparison, all but two of Honduras' 18 players ply their trade in the country's domestic league, and nearly all of them are likely to stay there.
Including Neymar wasn't simply about winning Olympic gold, but a way to let him begin forming a partnership with Gabigol and Gabriel Jesus, two youngsters who also figure prominently in Brazil's 2018 World Cup plans. The nation is still keening for revenge over the way Germany humiliated them in the last World Cup - 7-1 en route to the title - and on their home soil no less.
That much was apparent right after Brazil's first tally, when fans, clearly pulling for Germany in its semifinal match against Nigeria later in the day, began chanting, ''Hey Germany, just wait! Your turn is coming up!''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and Twitter.com/JimLitke.