Overseeing Rio de Janeiro’s hallowed open air Estádio Maracanã sits a landmark perched on the Corcovado mountain 700-feet above the Brazilian capital that is even more revered.
It’s now open for debate whether Brazil’s consecrated soapstone and concrete Christ The Redeemer deco statue represents the most beloved religious figure in the nation given the fervor over World Cup football. Beginning on June 12, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior will be the savior whom Brazilians will be exalting. If he keeps the World Cup Trophy in Brazil past the end of the international tournament, the nation’s predominantly Catholic population which is accustomed to worshipping at Cristo Redentor's stone feet may be proselytizing about Neymar's dexterous cleats for the next four years.
Messi and Ronaldo are the individual stars whom the world will have its eyes peeled for during the Cup, but Brazilians will be transfixed on the glow of Neymar.
In a nation besieged as the meat in an artery-clogging corruption sandwich between FIFA and its own parasitical government spending $13 billion on World Cup preparations while attempting to shield the national media from images of the surrounding abject poverty, the only consolation is a pyrrhic Brazilian victory. In May, Neymar launched a social media campaign against racism in sports after a banana was thrown in the direction of FC Barcelona teammate Daniel Alves, but he’s been silent about the ongoing World Cup demonstrations by Brazilians upset about the level of waste taking place.
As shrewd as it may sound, the second-best thing Neymar can do in the meantime is bring a resounding victory to the host country.
German Economist Wolfgang Maennig's 2006 study of the World Cup in his home country unveiled what he called a fleeting "feel good" effect.
“Self-esteem, happiness, this is what the economy is for. … if the World Cup makes people happy, we should invest in a World Cup,” said Maennig. “But we should stop pretending that hosting a World Cup will make us rich. It’s not true.”
Pele is the GOAT, but Neymar could be a deity if everything goes according to plan for the Brazilian side over the next 32 days.
For his first World Cup, he will don the Seleção prestigious No. 10 jersey. As vociferously as basketball fans revere the No. 23, football fanatics worldwide preach passionately about the honor of donning the No. 10 shirt.
The number 23 is highly regarded for another reason in football circles. That’s how many players World Cup rosters can carry.
Neymar was christened as the next great Brazilian footballer when he was just 18 by Ronaldinho who predicted that he’d surpass Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo once his potential is realized and the praise has rained in since.
"Cristiano has been making history for many years now, but Messi is the best in the world, and one day Neymar will be the best," former Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho told ESPN in 2012.
Neymar led Santos to the South American Copa Libertadores title and was named the continent's player of the year when he was just 19. However, in 2010, Neymar was left off the final 23-man World Cup roster by international team manager Carlos Dunga. Prodigies such as Pele and Ronaldo made their World Cup debuts at 18, however, Dunga and Neymar were as much of an odd couple as far as manager-player synergy goes.
Dunga's teams were under constant criticism for their no-frills, defensive style which eschewed the free-flowing philosophy. It’s the equivalent of Team USA basketball dramatically slowing down the pace and cutting back on the alley-oop dunks in transition. Dunga wanted to win with sound fundamentals and methodical precision, however, Brazilians were more interested in winning with the swag they’d always done it with.
This time around, Neymar will be the sun around which Brazil’s offense revolves. According to 2014 manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, Neymar will have "greater responsibility" with Brazil than he did during his rookie year at Barcelona, where he was second-fiddle to Messi. Scolari’s attack will allow Neymar to play with greater freedom and allow the striker to "improvise" more on the pitch, which should suit his style.
Last summer, he stoked the fires of Brazil’s football passion by leading his side to the Confederation Cup title on his home soil en route to being named the tournament’s top player.
Neymar’ arrival onto the international stage couldn’t have come at a more serendipitous period in Brazil’s football history. Moments like the one upon him and Brazil’s international side occur once every 64 years or so.
The last time Brazil hosted a World Cup in 1950 is remembered not for the pageantry or for their valiant performances. It’s memorialized for the ignominious defeat their side suffered at the hands of Uruguay, their tiny neighbors to the south in a historic match upset result now known as The Maracanazo.
As revered as football is worldwide, the national passion for Jogo Bonito borders on obsessive and the ’50 World Cup team has never been forgiven for tripping up short of the finish.
Neymar will be a focal point in that Brazilian attack. One year ago, he was an unknown commodity as a phenom in the Brasileirão Serie A as Santo FC’s brash, spikey-haired forward
He’s still slender, bordering on frail, even for a 22-year-old, but his greatest gifts are his joystick-like control over the dribble, and his resemblance to Sonic the Hedgehog while blazing down the pitch. He also never loses the scent for the back of the net and is football’s modern Allen Iverson analog for a generation of rebellious Brazilians.
Just as North American ballas forged their games on the blacktops of inner city outdoor courts, Brazilian footballers embrace the innovative, samba-like ball skills that can be traced back to the indoor futsal courts. Neymar is a product of the freestyle world that produced Ronaldinho infused with a mix of Messi’s goal-scoring ability.
Even his passes are a sight to behold, such as this beautiful no-look back heel kick intended for a streaking Hulk during a recent World Cup warm-up victory over Panama had an extra dash of showboat seasoning on it.
Yet, football talents aren’t truly legitimized until they’ve been tested through the rigors of European leagues. After years of speculation, FC Barcelona dished out a £48.6m transfer to land Neymar with one of La Liga's two most prominent clubs.
His rookie season, resulting in 15 goals in 41 appearances alongside the divine talent of Messi was a preview for a tour de force to come.
There are levels of potential football energy that Neymar has yet to unlock and channel into kinetic force. There are flashes exhibited in his displays of dribbling wizardry and artistic passes. However, his Super Saiyan evolution is right there behind a glass case teasing his most ardent supporters like a screamer ricocheting off the crossbar.
Brazilians are anticipating his ascension from budding star and celebrity pitchman to elite playmaker underneath the bright lights of the World Cup pitch.
Neymar’s career is about to take flight with the same unpredictable trajectory of an orb booted into the air and knuckling towards the back of the net.
If the 2013-14 La Liga campaign was a peek at his latent next-level abilities, then the World Cup is a banana kick to the back of his burgeoning legacy propelling him towards the next echelon of the football hierarchy. The only drag on his potential rise could be an underwhelming World Cup showing in the most intense international competition he’s ever participated in.
A complete tournament boondoggle could knock Neymar off the righteous path of Brazil’s GOAT Pele and make him the biggest football goat since Brazilian goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa failed to stop Alcides Ghiggia's match-winning goal in the 1950 Cup Final from sailing past him.
That’s unlikely given the 31 goals he’s already recorded in 48 career caps. With a decade left of his peak in the foreground, Pele's Brazilian record of 77 goals in international comp is well within arms er.... toe's reach. The best case scenario for Neymar and Brazil over the next month is a metaphorical breakaway run to the nation’s sixth World Cup title, serving as a temporary distraction from the ills of their society whilst turning him into a transformative sports figure worldwide. If there’s anything Brazilians need right now in the midst of chaos, it’s a reason to feel good. That’s the goal Neymar is ultimately aiming for.
While he’s at it, if Neymar’s social conscious kicks in he can make an effort to divert attention towards the correlation between Brazil’s booming economy and its rising poverty levels, they'd be all the more grateful.