With the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders, Brazilian Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior has delivered for the host nation in the World Cup. All eyes were on him entering the biggest event in sports, and Neymar has delivered. At only 22 years old, the forward has carried the team into the round of 16 and is the current leader in goals scored in the tournament with a total of four.
In Monday’s match against Cameroon, Neymar snuck past the defense and scored in the 17th minute, converting on a beautifully delivered cross in the middle of the box. It was not an easy finish, but a player of his quality, Neymar knew exactly where to slot the ball past the goalkeeper.
His second goal against the Cameroonians showed how lethal he can be. Neymar ran straight into the heart of the defense and shot with his right foot, putting the ball in the back of the net on a goal near post. To put into perspective how important Neymar has been to this Brazilian side, Brazil has scored seven goals in the tournament and four of them have come off the boot of Neymar. Without him, things may not be going so well for the Seleção in the group stage.
His goals gave his side first place in Group A as Brazil now prepares to play South American foe Chile in the knockout stages. But the tournament means a lot more for the country of Brazil than just soccer. Soccer has been Brazil’s way of proving itself to the rest of the world, giving more pressure for this team to win the World Cup.
With protests surrounding the event before it even began because of stadium workers demanding better working conditions, and controversy as to whether the billions of dollars invested into the World Cup should be spent on helping relieve poverty in the country, perhaps no other team has needed to win so much upon entering the tournament.
For Brazilians, this World Cup’s success is contingent on how well the national team performs, and anything less than a championship would bring down the hopes of an entire country. As the Brazilian national team goes, so do the people of Brazil.
That makes what Neymar has done even more impressive. In his first season playing with European soccer giant F.C. Barcelona, the forward had nine goals in 26 appearances for the club. However, it is when he puts on the yellow jersey that his similarities to Argentina’s Lionel Messi or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are really seen. With 35 goals scored in 52 appearances, he already ranks sixth for most goals scored for Brazil, ahead of other legendary Brazilian players such as Ronaldinho de Assis Moreira and Romário de Souza Faria.
In last year’s Confederations Cup, he was elected as the tournament’s best player and scored four goals in five games. It was a preview to what we are seeing now. Clearly, Neymar has a knack to deliver when his country needs him the most.
Although he is only 22 years old, he shows the maturity of a savvy veteran when he steps onto the pitch. His acceleration and pace allow him to separate from defenders, but his dribbling and creativity on the ball is what puts him in such an elite category. He is a master with the ball and has the potential to be the greatest player in the world. He shines most when the pressure is on.
Although Brazil easily dispatched opponents Croatia and Cameroon, it was a shaky performance from the team as a whole. The team’s backline at times looked flustered and it could prove costly from now on. Brazil’s defenders have a tendency of pushing too much into the attack, leaving holes for opponents to exploit.
That could be a problem against Chile, who has players such as Arturo Vidal who is deadly in open space. Aside from that, Chile is firing from all cylinders, as demonstrated when they eliminated defending champions Spain.
So can an entire team win the World Cup behind only one player? In the 1986 World Cup, Argentina lifted the trophy on the sole efforts of Diego Maradona, arguably the best soccer player of all time. Now the same question must be asked of Neymar. Ultimately, it will need to be a team effort for Brazil to win. However, Brazil will thrive as long as Neymar does.
A version of this article appeared in June 24, 2014′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.