RIO DE JANEIRO — All that 23-year-old striker Everton expected when he joined Brazil's Copa América squad one month ago was to pick up some international experience.
But Everton will return to his club Grêmio as a key member of the winning team, the top goal scorer of the tournament, the best player in the 3-1 win against Peru in the final and the owner of local fans' hearts because of his sharp dribbles and samba style soccer.
"If Neymar was here maybe I would have just a few chances. I had that on my mind, I knew that if I had any opportunities I would have to seize those moments the best I could," the left-winger said after Sunday's final at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. "Thank God I managed to step up."
Everton started as the second option to substitute Neymar if Brazil's most recognizable player needed a rest or was suspended during the tournament. When the superstar injured his right ankle days before the opening and was forced to miss Copa América, coach Tite picked David Neres as his initial replacement in the starting lineup.
Brazil and Neres failed to deliver in the first half of the opener against Bolivia, and deservedly received jeers at the break in São Paulo when the match was 0-0. Tite then brought Everton in, and the winger scored the best goal of the evening in the 3-0 win, with a swerving shot from the edge of the box.
However, that was not enough to convince Tite, and Neres started again in the goalless draw with Venezuela. Brazil was once more booed, with Everton having little time to break into the Paraguayan defence.
After the penalty shootout victory, Tite hinted Everton could start the decisive group stage match against Peru, admitting he needed to make changes more quickly. And so he did.
It took Everton 32 minutes to score Brazil's third goal in the 5-0 win, with a powerful long-range shot that squeezed in between the right post and the hands of goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. Everton's dribbles and quick passes in the rest of the match made fans at the Arena Corinthians excited about a Brazil player that is yet to play in Europe, a rare feature.
Everton had a more tactical role in the 2-0 win against Argentina in the semifinals, raising doubts he could deliver in the final. Instead of dribbles, he put in a lot of defensive effort in Belo Horizonte, mainly to block Lionel Messi.
But against Peru he was back to his initial form, opening the scoring in the 15th minute from close range and earning the penalty that allowed Brazil to settle the affair at the Maracanã.
Known in Brazil as "Cebolinha," in a reference to a comic-book character that has almost no hair, Everton believes local fans have embraced him because he is yet to leave the country.
"Playing in Brazilian soccer helped a little. It was special because I could give some love back to a crowd that watches me more often," he said. "Sometimes we give a lot of attention to those playing abroad, and forget our roots. If you look around in Brazil you will see other players that had all the skills to be here too. I hope we pay more attention to players of Brazilian clubs."
Tite has admitted he has "a good problem to solve" after Everton's performances in Copa América.
Asked what he will do once Neymar returns from injury, he jokingly said: "I will play him, Everton and nine other players."
Everton said he will be even more surprised if that indeed happens.
"Not even in the best of my dreams I thought this could happen," he said.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports