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Neymar answers critics in style

He leads tournament's top-scorer list and is red-hot favourite to claim the Golden Boot award

Neymar: Brazil's poster boy revels in the attention of being one of the sport's most recognisable faces today. - PHOTO: AFP

HE'S only 22 years of age and already this skinny, shaggy-haired Brazilian is making the World Cup his personal playground.

All the talk before the tournament was whether Neymar da Silva Santos Junior - better known to the world simply as Neymar - would deliver the goods for his country.

He may have excelled for Barcelona last season, but there were question marks as to whether he could bang in the goals for a nation that craves World Cup success in its backyard, chiefly to exorcise the ghosts of 1950 when Brazil lost the final at home to rivals Uruguay.

With the World Cup entering the knockout stages this weekend, Neymar has answered his critics in some style.

Wearing the number 10 jersey - made famous by the likes of Pele, Zico, Rivaldo and Kaka - has also not daunted him one bit. Brazil's new poster boy revels in the attention and pressure of being one of the sport's most recognisable faces today.

He sits pretty at the top of the tournament's top scorer list with four goals after just three matches, making him a red-hot favourite to claim the Golden Boot award when all is said and done.

With 35 strikes in 52 appearances for the Selecao, his goals-per-game average is bettered only by Pele and Zico, the two legends whose respective goal tallies of 77 and 66 could well be surpassed by Neymar long before he hangs up his boots for good.

Neymar, who earns millions of dollars a year in salary and endorsement fees, is at a tender age where he could so easily be consumed by the trappings of a lavish lifestyle.

Thankfully, he doesn't feel like he needs to show off. All he wants to do is get out on to the pitch and play a game of football.

Lesson for opponents

A sign of Neymar's maturity was evident in yesterday's match with Cameroon. In front of a rowdy crowd in the capital of Brasilia, he was pushed into some advertising hoardings by one Cameroonian player and slapped in the face by another.

He was clearly frustrated, but he did not flinch nor retaliate physically. All he did was to promptly hit back with two glorious first-half goals to help lift Brazil to a comfortable 4-1 victory.

Lesson for Cameroon, and for all of Brazil's future opponents in the World Cup: don't push Neymar around or make him mad.

Neymar could have bagged a hat-trick against the Africans, but his afternoon was cut short through injury 18 minutes from full time after being the target of one too many heavy tackles.

There isn't much time to recover. Chile, one of the surprise packages of this unpredictable World Cup, lie in wait in the second round this Saturday.

The Chileans demonstrated their true prowess by knocking out the 2010 champion Spain in the group stage, and have the potential to give Brazil plenty of problems.

They say that one man alone can never win the World Cup for his country on his own, but Neymar will surely have a very big say in determining the destiny of the golden trophy.

An entire nation of 200 million people now prays that his knee injury isn't too serious. Brazil reached the Round of 16 with Neymar in full throttle. They will need him fully fit and firing on all cylinders in order to win that record sixth championship.