The Boy from Brazil's moment has arrived

SEBASTIAN HASSETT
Last updated 11:28 12/06/2014
Neymar
Reuters
UNDER PRESSURE: Brazil sensation Neymar is carrying the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.

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It is not unique for a hometown hero to feel the weight of expectation going into a major tournament but the scrutiny placed upon one man at this World Cup is no ordinary pressure.

Neymar, the 22-year old prodigy with the hairstyle and swagger of a carefree rock star, is carrying the hopes and dreams of a nation between his twinkling toes.

No individual in this country of 202 million inhabitants better sums up what Brazil aspires to be: smiling, always laughing, effortlessly cool, wealthy, cosmopolitan and bursting with youthful energy.

Despite his age, he is no overnight sensation, either. Neymar was a child prodigy, fiercely pursued by Real Madrid at 16 and a member of the Seleção at 18. For context, if he played for Australia, he'd be the third-most capped player in the sqaud. His 50th international will come tomorrow morning (NZT), against Croatia in the opening match of the World Cup.

Neymar is truly a product of his generation, a player so prepared for greatness that every inch of his image has been manicured since he made his debut for Santos in 2009.

He has become a brand unto himself, so wholly that it is hard to know where his talent stops and his endorsements begin.

Unlike the rest of the game's elite, he's spent just one year in Europe. In this inter-connected world, he didn't need to rush. Already a global force before departing, and earning Euro-like wages at home, he embodies Brazil's awakening economy.

Neymar's connection with Nike is three years old - but still has another eight still to run. He's the face of Panasonic and some of the Latin world's most powerful brands: Santander, Volkswagen, Tenys Pé Baruel, Lupo, Ambev, Claro and Unilever.

It goes up a gear in his representation of Red Bull. Strategic appearances where he can promote the Austrian soft drink manufacturer know no bounds; he is regularly shown emerging from the tunnel at half-time clutching a can of the caffeinated beverage.

Not even Pele, now a figure of mass incredulity for his remorseless marketing appointments, would dare pull off such a feat. But Neymar does, partially because the world accepts him as being permanently "on-message".

Though he appears to be lapping up the attention - he's netted 31 international goals and a four consecutive Brazilian league MVP's - one must wonder how he'll handle the inevitable pressure of the next month.

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His likeness isn't just spotted occasionally in Brazil. It is everywhere. Replica shirts, real and fake, are virtually only sold with his number 10 on the back. His presence in the media, in TV, newspapers, magazines and online, is ubiquitous.

Others have occupied similar places in the national psyche - Pele and Ronaldo in the pantheon, Romario, Garrincha, Zico and Socrates narrowly below deity - but none of them were charged with the task of inspiring the country to win a World Cup on home soil.

Brazil's apparent laissez-faire approach to life is the surface we foreigners so easily see; deeper than this, however, is a thriving sense of inadequacy: too corrupt, too poor, not stable enough, not European enough, divided by geography, class, bereft of equality and opportunity.

Fùtbol
, above church and samba, is not just a pastime but a national escapism, full of mythological figures - even enemies of the state, like Moacir Barbosa, the keeper in the ill-fated 1950 World Cup campaign, the last time Brazil played host.

His corpse has been exhumed, figuratively at least, so frequently in the lead-up to this tournament that it feels as though Brazil's five tournament triumphs count for nought. Not until they win at home will a restless nation's ghosts finally be allowed to rest.

That is the responsibility that has fallen on Neymar, more than anyone else. Given his desire to find the spotlight at all times, it is eminently possible he will ride the wave of public emotion like Gabriel Medina, carrying him all the way to the shore.

But it is equally possible that same wave will engulf him, and this nation of dreamers who cannot bear to see Neymar fail, lest it reflect their own shortcomings.

The Barcelona star probably has another two World Cups in him, anyway. Perhaps hindsight will reveal this to be an ordeal too great for one man. The frenzied brew of expectation, furiously fermenting from Sao Paolo to Salvador, threatens to become a powder keg.

But nobody could hope matters unfold so negatively. There would be no better story than having the boy wonder glide his way into history, his name inscribed into eternity.

Even for us impartial observers, it is simply too irresistible not to watch and wonder over what happens next.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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