When Neymar was ruled out of the Copa America with an ankle injury just over a week before the big kick-off, there was reason for hosts Brazil to despair.
But one player more than any other has given rise to renewed optimism within the Selecao ranks, and that’s Everton Soares – a player reportedly courted by both Manchester clubs, City and United, and Paris Saint-Germain.
The dynamic 23-year-old winger has been a revelation for Brazil since earning a starting berth in their final Copa America group game against Peru. He had already scored the third goal in a 3-0 win over Bolivia in the tournament opener after coming on as a substitute.
After the dire 0-0 draw with Venezuela, Everton was one of two changes made by coach Tite to Brazil’s attacking triumvirate — Gabriel Jesus was also promoted to the starting XI — and rewarded his coach with another goal and swashbuckling performance down the left flank.
And in his home stadium in Porto Alegre, where he plays for Gremio, Everton was the one player who lifted the crowd onto their feet every time he got the ball in an otherwise frustrating blank against Paraguay in the quarter-finals, before Brazil won on penalties.
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“He’s the one who opens up the marking, who faces up to it,” said Atletico Madrid full-back Filipe Luis, whos linked up well with Everton down the flank. “Those who benefit are those players playing close to him.”
That’s a move that will likely materialize once this tournament is over for the player nicknamed “Cebolinha” – little onion, a reference not to him making defenders cry but to his likeness to a cartoon character of the same name due to the tuft of hair on his otherwise shaved scalp.
His popularity among the Brazilian fans is evident and largely because he’s one of just three of the 23-man tournament squad still plying his trade in his homeland.
The other two — reserve goalkeeper Cassio and second choice full-back Fagner — have yet to feature, meaning Everton is the only home player gracing the Copa America that local fans are able to watch at close quarters. Although that is almost certain to change soon enough. “He’s a player who’s ready to play in Europe,” said Felipe Luis.
After Everton’s scoring cameo against Bolivia, one of the most respected football journalists in Brazil, Juca Kfouri, wrote in the prestigious Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that “Everton must start for the Selecao.”
“You have to have the courage to pick those that have the audacity to play football,” he added.
Everton doesn’t quite have the wing wizardry of one of Brazil’s greats, Garrincha, but his bustling, powerful running and impressive close control are mightily effective, as is his ability to cut inside and shoot.
Like a right-footed Arjen Robben, who likewise operates on the opposite flank to the one he should naturally occupy, Everton has been particularly dangerous cutting in from the left onto his good peg.
Both his goals came from that move, firing an unstoppable shot into the top far corner against Bolivia, and catching out Peru goalkeeper Pedro Gallese with a drilled low effort to the near post.
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“That’s one of my characteristics, I like to cut inside,” Everton said after his goal against Venezuela.
“I feinted to shoot twice and then hit it hard, giving the goalkeeper no chance.” That was his first goal for the national team, in his seventh appearance, many of which had been as a substitute.
“I really wanted to score that first goal, I was starting to beat myself up about it and get impatient.”
He didn’t have to wait long for his next one – it came two matches later – and given the way he’s playing, he surely won’t be getting impatient again.
Brazilians, though, will have to make the most of watching him here because he looks a certainty to be heading to European shores before the new season begins in August, no matter how much the fans want to hold onto him.
Manchester City are waiting in the wings and although a defiant internet user suggested this would be possible only if the Premier League champions offered Sergio “Aguero and 50 million euros,” given his release clause is 60 million euros, City won’t have to part with their Argentine star if they do decide to move in on the popular Brazilian.