Neymar and the quest for 'Amarildo'
Brazil take on Germany in a few hours and all the talk in Brazil is about the one man who won’t feature in the game - Neymar, Brazil’s new golden boy who’s yet to win the World Cup.
Everywhere I have gone since arriving in Sao Paolo, the talk has been about Neymar and how good he is and how much the team will miss him and, even worse, so many fears about how they will fare without him.
I am not surprised by the adulation. After all, Neymar grew up in the same south coast of Sao Paolo as Pele. However, it is not just here where he is idolised, but all over Brazil.
I had my doubts about Neymar when he first burst onto the scene, mostly because I felt he played down the left wing most of the time and didn’t seem to dominate the game like Cryuff, Diego Maradona or Pele.
However, at the Fifa Confederations Cup last year, he blew me away with his touch and his ruthless yet sublime finishing in front of goal and not even an indifferent season at Barcelona could chance my new-found admiration.
So far in Brazil 2014, he was closely marked yet he left his mark in all the group games and even the quarterfinals until that horrible tackle by Columbia’s Zuniga brought his tournament to an end and, with it, the hopes of over 200 million Brazilians.
Hopefully he’ll recover in time to return to the La Liga and the Uefa Champions League, but we’ll have to wait another four years to see his gradual ascent to the heights of Brazilian and perhaps world football kingship.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope that he could still attain it here if Brazil win tonight, and again on Sunday against either Argentina or the Netherlands. How you might ask..
Well, Pele, arguably the greatest footballer ever in most people’s books and surely in my books, won the World Cup in 1958 as a teary-eyed 17-year-old, a precocious talent even at that age and time of the most vicious of tackles, but he was their best kept secret and not a regular like Neymar.
When he eventually took to the pitch in the quarterfinals, he would score.
In 1962 when he arrived in Chile, he was 21 - the same age as Neymar and under a lot of pressure. There was a great deal more expectation and Brazil expected to win, then the unthinkable happened, Pele was injured and gloom filled the country. Everyone wondered how they were going to manage without Pele.
Brazil would go on to beat Czechoslovakia 3-1 in a memorable finals in Santiago, with two goals from an unlikely hero, Amarildo, supported by the old guard, the wing master class of Garrincha on the right and Mario Zagalo on the left, as well as the midfield maestro, Didi, and of course Vava, the first man to score in two consecutive finals.
Amarildo would probably not have played in that tournament, but he got his chance when Pele got injured and even his goals did not place him up there with the best as Pele returned to claim his place in the team in 1966, where he was injured as Brazil crashed out.
Brazil have never lacked heroes and you can go back in time to Arthur Freidenreich, the first Brazilian star reputed to have scored more goals than Pele, or Leonidas, top scorer at the 1938 World Cup who is credited with inventing or perfecting the bicycle kick, or Gerson, Jaizinho, Rivelinho and Tostao, Clodoaldo and Carlos Alberto from 1970 or Zico, Socrates and Falcao from the 80s, Bebeto, Romario, Dunga and Tafarel from the 90s, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu and Ronaldinho from 2002 as well as Kaka.
The agony for most Brazilians is that despite these truly gifted players, the world continues to place first Maradona and now Messi alongside Pele as the greatest of all time. Neymar was their answer and this was supposed to be just the beginning of the journey.
Whatever the outcome, I will have the benefit of seeing first-hand the joy of victory in this most football crazy country or the pains of defeat that they have waited 64 years to banish the ghosts of losing the 1950 World Cup on home soil
Neymar was supposed to achieve what even Pele did not do, win the World Cup on home soil.
They will not forgive Zuniga, his name will join the list of infamy that also includes that of Portuguese defender Moraias who famously hacked down Pele and with it Brazil out of the 1966 World Cup.
The world awaits and the quest for the next Amarildo continues, with strikers Fred and Jo so far proving so unconvincing and the youngster Bernard barely getting a look in except for a cameo appearance earlier in the tournament.
Will it be Bernard? Will Neymar’s injury have the 1962 effect or will it be 1966 for Brazil?