The 22-year-old striker had just slotted the winning penalty as Brazil beat Chile 3-2 in a dramatic shootout after the score was locked 1-1 at the end of extra time, setting the World Cup hosts on course for a showdown against a James Rodriguez-inspired Colombia lineup that beat Uruguay 2-0 later Saturday to reach the quarterfinals for the first time.
As Chile's last penalty hit the post, it seemed as though the population of Brazil breathed a collective sigh of relief that its beloved team was still in the World Cup.
While it was a heart-stopper for Brazil, which has spent billions to host football's marquee tournament, it was a heartbreaker for Chile, which created plenty of chances to force an upset win — none closer than Mauricio Pinilla's powerful shot into the crossbar in the last moments of extra time.
David Luiz for Brazil and Alexis Sanchez for Chile scored first half goals.
Shops were closed and usually busy roads were quiet as the country of almost 200 million urged its revered Selecao to victory and ever closer to a sixth World Cup title — a trophy they desperately want to collect on home soil.
"There are only three steps left and I still want to be back here to give another interview, with Brazil partying," Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar said after his player-of-the-match performance, including two crucial saves at the start of the shootout that ensured some redemption for a costly error in South Africa four years ago.
First things first. Brazil next faces a Colombia team that has won all four of its matches so and is being led by the increasingly confident playmaker Rodriguez, who scored once in each half against Uruguay — which was missing its star striker Luis Suarez — to lift his tournament tally to five goals.
Suarez was banished from the World Cup for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini in the 1-0 group-stage win that secured Uruguay's place in the knockout rounds.
Diego Forlan started in place of Suarez — who claimed he accidently made contact with Chiellini's shoulder and has appealed against his ban of four months from football and nine international matches — but couldn't reproduce anything like the form that earned him the 2010 World Cup player of the tournament award.
Two early contenders for that accolade in 2014 underlined their importance to their teams and set up an intriguing showdown at Fortaleza on Friday. Baby-faced Rodriguez has played with maturity beyond his 22 years to fill the void left by injured striker Radamel Falcao, not just creating opportunities but also converting them for Colombia.
He deftly controlled a cross with his chest and volleyed in from long range to score the opener and put the Uruguayans back on their heels, but said "I think now the toughest is coming up."
Neymar is trying to live up to the hype in Brazil, coming through in the big moments. He scored four goals in the group stage and, although he wasn't at his best against Chile, he found the net after his stuttering run-up to the penalty spot during the shootout. His kick gave Brazil a 3-2 buffer, proving decisive when Gonzalo Jara's final attempt for Chile hit the post, sparking raucous celebrations on the field and in the yellow-washed crowd in Belo Horizonte.
It was just one of the moments that Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli didn't see coming, and he later reflected on Pinilla's late strike that could have changed the complexion of the tournament.
"The near goal has been very hard for us to take," he said. "If it had gone in, it would have been a historic moment for Chile."
The packed fan fests in Rio's Copacabana beach and at Sao Paulo were packed with screaming, flag-waving Brazilians. At the Maracana, Brazil fans already inside the stadium for the Colombia-Uruguay match erupted into cheers as they followed the win on TVs. The Maracana was also a sea of yellow, but this time it was tens of thousands of Colombian fans.
"Congratulations to all the Colombian people," coach Jose Pekerman said. "The people in Colombia deserve this."