Sao Paulo: Neymar is the poster boy of Brazilian football, but it is not his name that has been chanted most regularly outside the World Cup training complex in Terespolis, 50 miles from Rio de Janeiro; it is not the Barcelona striker whose image is almost a constant when it is a Brazilian player interviewed on television; it is not the 22-year-old who features most prominently in the welter of advertisements around this competition.
In a dose of reality and a realisation that this squad has its limitations David Luiz has emerged as the true leader. And that says as much about the relative strength of the Selecao as it does about the approach being taken by their pragmatic coach Luiz Felipe Scolari who did not think twice about cutting Ronaldinho, Robinho and Kaka – names that resonate – from his squad.
There was a comment from Pele, in an interview with the BBC aired on Tuesday, that can be read in two ways. “For the first time in the history of football in Brazil, Brazil has a defence better than the attack,” Pele said. “Neymar is young, it’s his first World Cup. I think it’s very hard for him to play with all the responsibility.”
Luiz forms half of the most expensive central defence in the history of football with the 27-year-old — who PSG are paying Chelsea £48 million to sign - lining up alongside his new club team-mate Thiago Silva – who cost the French club £35m in 2012 – and has become a ubiquitous figure in a squad that is still reaching to find its own identity.
With his exuberance, his mop of hair, his penchant for pulling faces and his natural desire and ability to mix — as the fans outside at Terespolis have found out to their delight — then Luiz is always going to draw a following especially with children. And he is always identifiable.
Even so Luiz is a serious footballer. He was angered by Gary Neville likening him to a “Playstation player” – believing it was demeaning – and he accused the media in England of “killing him” with their criticism. He is also a ruthless and, at times, cynical defender as well as a prodigiously talented player. Little wonder Scolari admires him.
Neymar will play on Thursday in the opening match here in Sao Paulo, where Brazil were due to arrive on Tuesday evening, against Croatia which will set the tone for this World Cup and will a provide a clue as to what its identity will be and what the home nation are capable of achieving.
Oscar is the other player with the talent, the image — even if he is held back by his natural shyness and a drop in confidence — to be the defining player for Brazil, but as that uncertainty has continued so Luiz has stepped forward. It is no surprise given his natural exuberance with Scolari quick to state that the defender is one of his three “chosen leaders” alongside veteran striker Fred and veteran goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
That sense of the unknown extends far. Of the 23 players in Scolari’s squad only six have experienced a World Cup before while the last competitive game the team played was the final of last year’s Confederations Cup when they defeated Spain and began to grow the belief that they could just do this.
But there remains uncertainty all around. There is the larger fear that this World Cup will be a missed opportunity to leave a great legacy with its broken promises and wasted money and there is genuine fear that this Brazil team may exit early.
But Brazilians are also being realistic. They also accept that the golden years of dominance between 1958 and 1970 are long gone.