Neymar and Brazil kick-start Copa America to empty seats and silent fanfare

By Sports Desk June 13, 2021

Before Brazil's Copa America opener against Venezuela, there was a moment of silence to recognise the victims of the pandemic and those leading the fight against COVID-19.

It was a poignant scene. Somehow, it was made more powerful by the fact it was staged in front of thousands of empty seats at Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, the fans kept away from matches at a tournament held in part as a distraction from the global health crisis.

Yet the Selecao's simple victory, secured through goals by Marquinhos, Neymar and Gabriel Barbosa, only compounded the uncomfortable feeling that, perhaps, this tournament shouldn't be taking place at all.

CONMEBOL's decision to remove the event from co-hosts Colombia and Argentina over concerns around civil unrest and coronavirus cases, and relocate it to a country struggling with both, was questionable to say the least. The Brazil squad certainly thought so, reluctantly taking part only after making it clear they were deeply unhappy with South American football's governing body. Head coach Tite decried it as a "politicised" decision.

In the weeks leading up to the tournament, protests erupted across the country against the handling of the pandemic by president Jair Bolsonaro, who has been criticised for playing down the severity of a virus that has killed more than 460,000 of his citizens. Then, just when Brazil had agreed to play, Sunday's opponents were struck by a surge of positive test results, wrecking their preparations for a match where few gave them a chance anyway.

So it was that the Brazil and Venezuela players stood arm in arm in the centre circle on Sunday, in silent tribute before those empty red seats, faceless reminders of the awful toll COVID-19 has taken. It felt like this was why these teams had gathered here, that the football match to follow was an afterthought.

There were still things to admire about the subsequent 90 minutes. A depleted Venezuela performed admirably to keep Brazil at arm's length for 23 minutes and rode their luck when Richarlison's touch let him down and Gabriel Jesus steered a header wide. It took a set-piece for Tite's mean to break through, Marquinhos bundling the ball in from Neymar's delivery.

Joel Graterol in the Vinotinto goal had kept the scoreline down but was beaten again just past the hour mark, Neymar side-stepping and stuttering his way to the penalty spot before slotting home international goal number 67 after a foul on Danilo. Brazil's number 10 would have had two more sublime solo goals had his shooting been a little more accurate; instead, he put a pinpoint cross into Gabriel's chest for 3-0 after another drive into the box.

The players celebrated their goals with gusto but, after the full-time whistle echoed around the arena, there were few cheers or beaming smiles. This was job done, formalities over, onto the next one. They retreated back down the tunnel. The eerie silence lingered.

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