WHEREVER you look, the same face seems to stare back at you.
Hagiographies masquerading as biographies litter the book shelves in airports, while newspapers require little excuse to use his image on their front pages.
The face also stares out at you from bank machines. From the sides of buses, from the walls in hotel lobbies. He is on the front page of this month’s issue of Vogue in Brazil, dressed all in white and with his right arm draped over the shoulder of Gisele, the Brazilian supermodel.
And no, we are not talking about Fred, the rather ungainly and under-fire Brazil striker who has managed to do the seemingly impossible and almost dampen the enthusiasm of the locals in the street. Neymar, however, is a different story. His profile is increasing, if that is possible. Even in the United States, it has been reported that his jersey is the highest selling player’s top in the opening days of the World Cup.
Even though Neymar, like Fred, drew a blank last Wednesday night in the 0-0 draw against Mexico, the Barcelona player is not being treated with the disdain being meted out to his unfortunate fellow forward.
One columnist began his piece in O Estado de S. Paulo on Friday morning with the question: “Was Fred watching the game between Uruguay and England?” The inference was that the writer hoped he was. You don’t need to have a degree in Portuguese to be able to decipher the headline: “Lusito Suarez indica o caminho a Fred.” Luis Suarez points the way for Fred.
But Neymar’s reputation has been maintained. Indeed, helped by the two goals he scored in the opening day win over Croatia, the furore surrounding him has been stoked. After last week’s slightly dismaying 0-0 draw with Mexico, the next assignment for the Selecao is to beat Cameroon in Brasilia on Tuesday afternoon, thereby at least ensuring qualification. It was possible to discern a mild sense of panic following last week’s draw with Mexico, which means it is still possible that Brazil could join Spain and England in being eliminated early from the tournament.
However, they have no plans to leave their own tournament early; not when everyone appears to be having so much fun. Not when they have an appointment with destiny at the Maracana to keep on 13 July. It is then and only then that Brazil are scheduled to play at their spiritual home, a remarkable turn of events after it was originally planned that they would play all three group games in the stadium.
There is much work to do in the meantime, including a possible last-16 tie with Chile or the Netherlands in Belo Horizonte next Saturday afternoon, providing Brazil can top their group.
Much, of course, rests on Neymar. He admirably lived up to the hype against Croatia. However, he has exhibited some signs of having been affected by the so-called Neymarmania that has gripped the country. He broke down before the match with Mexico, when the fans began to sing the national anthem a cappella. Such a display of patriotism has done little to douse the adoration he can count on.
Neymar was ten when Brazil last won the World Cup, in 2002. He recently recalled even wearing his hair in the style of Ronaldo, who scored twice in the final in Yokohama while sporting a haircut that has been consistently been voted one of the worst of all times. The striker shaved almost all his hair but left a section of it in a tuft on top. For a brief spell in Brazil, this became the fashion du jour. More recently, Neymar has preferred the strange mohawk style.
For the World Cup, he has adopted the shaved-at-the-sides, dyed-blond-at-the-front look. As a tribute, so have many in the streets. His popularity is showing no sign of waning.
Neymar, who grew up living in his grandmother’s house in Sao Vicente, near the port of Santos, would spend hours kicking a futsal around, in a bid to be like his hero, Ronaldo. However, he followed in the footsteps of another Brazilian legend, making his name at the same club as Pele: Santos.
Socrates, the late great midfielder, once described Neymar, and the exciting side he then played for, as being “the only reasons that prevent me from falling asleep in front of the TV whenever I try to watch Brazilian football these days”. This was quite an endorsement from the man who was heavily critical of Brazil having begun to stray from the principles of entertaining football. This is something they are seeking to address now under Phil Scolari, who watched his side denied at least one goal against Mexico due to some genuinely heroic goalkeeping by Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa.
Elimination at this stage would be unthinkable for a team boosted by a triumph in last year’s warm-up event, the Confederations Cup, as well as victories in 15 of their last 16 matches.
David Luiz, however, is wary of Cameroon. “We will be facing a team that comes without any responsibility,” the Brazil defender said.
“Their players will want to show that they can do better than they did in the first two matches. A victory against the hosts would be like a title to them.
“Cameroon will be playing for pride. Their players are still representing their nation and they will want to leave the World Cup by beating the hosts. We know that we will be facing a team that still wants to play well.”
The Africans will be without defensive midfielder Alex Song, who was red-carded against Croatia, and it remains unclear if striker Samuel Eto’o will recover from a right knee injury.
It seems unlikely that Cameroon, perhaps the most disappointing team at the tournament so far, will be able to frustrate Brazil; the march towards the Maracana continues.