SAO PAULO — Brazil may have finally found someone to fill the shoes of Neymar in the Copa America.
With the injured star watching from afar and fans growing increasingly annoyed with the team's poor performances, young forward Everton provided the spark Brazil needed to get going in the South American tournament.
Everton made his first start with Brazil's national team on Saturday, leading the "Selecao" to a 5-0 rout of Peru and igniting the Brazilian fans for the first time in the tournament.
Brazil had been booed by the home fans after two lacklustre performances against Bolivia and Venezuela, but Everton helped bring out the fans' cheers in the commanding victory that secured the hosts a spot in the quarterfinals.
Everton used his nifty dribbles and great speed to get past Peruvian defenders and thrill the crowd at the packed Arena Corinthians. It was the kind of performance Brazilian fans were used to seeing from Neymar, who was dropped from the squad just before the tournament because of an ankle injury.
The 23-year-old Everton scored the team's third goal on Saturday, with a low shot from outside the area after clearing a couple of defenders with a clever cutback move toward the middle.
"He has personality," said Brazil coach Tite, who had been under pressure to add Everton to the starting lineup after he played well coming off the bench in the first two games.
The young forward from Brazilian club Gremio had improved the team both times he played as a substitute. He scored his first goal of the tournament in the 3-0 win over Bolivia in the opener.
Fans loudly cheered at the Arena Corinthians when he was announced as a starter on Saturday. Tite also added Gabriel Jesus, who also hadn't started in the first two games. The coach had been playing with David Neres and Richarlison up front, along with Roberto Firmino.
"I told my attacking players that each of them has a different characteristic," Tite said. "And they will all be needed at some point."
Neres, a 22-year-old forward who impressed with Ajax, played in Neymar's position since the Paris Saint-Germain player got injured, and it was Philippe Coutinho who was the player touted to take over the team's leadership role from Neymar.
But all the attention is now with Everton, whose nickname is "Cebolinha," or literally "Little Onion." The nickname is a reference to a well-known children's comic book character in Brazil, a young boy with a hair with only five strands.
Everton has been highly regarded locally for some time but was yet to attract a lot of attention abroad. There were rumours of a possible interest by Neymar's PSG, but most reports of offers until now had been linked to smaller European clubs. His Copa America performances could increase his chances of finding a bigger team in this summer's transfer window.
"Everton is ready, I can see him playing in Europe right away," Atletico Madrid left back Filipe Luis said. "He is always making the right choices, always in the right position. That makes a huge difference."
Born in northeastern Brazil, Everton was signed by Gremio from the youth squads of Fortaleza. He has a contract with Gremio until 2022 and the buyout clause is reportedly set at about 70 million euros ($80 million). He helped the traditional club from southern Brazil win the Brazilian Cup in 2016 and the Copa Libertadores in 2017.
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