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Neymar returns, and Brazil exhales

Neymar had a goal and an assist Monday night in Qatar. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

DOHA, Qatar — Neymar returned to the World Cup on Monday night, played 81 minutes, felt no pain in his right ankle and concluded an 11-day stretch of messages, prayers and who-knows-what-else that wished for his healing.

“I only have words of thanks to tell [fans] for all the love they sent my way,” the Brazilian superstar said after Brazil’s 4-1 dazzler against South Korea in the round of 16. “When I got injured, I spent a difficult night. I was thinking of a million different things. I was afraid of not being able to play in the World Cup again.”

He missed matches against Switzerland on Nov. 28 and Cameroon on Dec. 2, but he did play in the World Cup again — and he did assist on a goal in the seventh minute and score on a penalty in the 13th. And he did get voted man of the match even if that seemed a kind of ploy to get him to the interview dais. He said, “The praise of ‘man of the match’ is not only me — it’s for everyone.”

World Cup bracket and knockout round schedule

The injury to the 30-year-old had been such a story that Brazil brought along to the interview session its key physiotherapist, Ricardo Sasaki, for a moment in the floodlights. Sasaki merely thanked the coaches. Neymar thanked the coaches, Sasaki and the fans.

Tite, the head of the coaches, said he had remained uncertain Neymar could play until the final practice Sunday. While everyone was giving homage to medical professionals, Tite said he and Ricardo Rosa, Neymar’s trainer, studied the forward then and so, “Nothing had to be said,” Tite said. “We just exchanged eyesight and we knew it.”

“First of all,” Neymar said, “I would like to say thank God for the strength I have to be back in the pitch, to be able to train, and to do everything I needed to do to be on the pitch again. So thanks to the therapists and all the colleagues that encouraged me in the past few days. . . . I did not feel any pain in my ankle. I think my performance went very well, and I’m very content. I think we can always improve, and that’s what I always try to do.”

They also brought along assistant coach Cesar Sampaio to the merry group, and Sampaio said: “Neymar for sure provides a competitive advantage. He makes a difference on the pitch. He is a driving force, and I’m going round and round [explaining] . . . but in a nutshell, I would like to [congratulate] our physiotherapist, Ricardo Sasaki, for his work” — especially as Neymar “also motivates other players,” Sampaio said, so that “we can reach our full potential.”

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.

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