Midfield General

Brazil's Man of the Moment, by Necessity

If Neymar didn't exist, the marketers would have had to invent him.

MALAGA, Spain — When the history of major sporting events is written, there are individuals whose names become inextricably linked with the action on the field of play. Mention the 1936 Olympics, and Jesse Owens will soon come up. Try imagining the 1970 World Cup without Pele, and you won't get very far. 

In those instances, the connections came after the performances. However, an increased focus on marketing and sponsorships has seen athletes characterized as the faces of the games well in advance of the competitions themselves. Michael Phelps in Beijing. Lindsey Vonn in Vancouver. And Neymar in Brazil.

It feels natural. As the star player of the host nation and World Cup favorites, Barcelona forward Neymar doesn't just carry Brazil's hopes this summer; he embodies them. For the brilliant 22-year-old is more than a mere sporting icon -- he's also a cultural and economic one.

"Neymar goes beyond the football pitch," said FIFA's Pedro Trengrouse at the Soccerex global convention last year. "Brazil is one of the top six economies in the world [by purchasing power] and is a football country. Neymar is a product of this good moment for the Brazilian economy. He is a very good player, but the Neymar phenomenon goes beyond his talent. It is a phenomenon of the Brazilian economy as a whole."

Confident, precocious, and on the rise, Neymar is emblematic of the new Brazil. Still, it's difficult to escape the idea that this is the right player in the right place at the right time. Amid the familiar pattern of the talent drain to Europe, Neymar emerged as a charismatic domestic hero at Santos, a storied if somewhat unfavored club based near São Paulo in the coastal town of the same name. Indeed, it's tempting to conclude that if he didn't exist, Brazil's futebol-industrial complex would have had to invent him.

"Neymar has created an empathy with young kids that is unique and has never been seen before," said Marcelo Damato, an experienced Brazilian journalist with the face of a man you'd think had witnessed it all. It's this extraordinary connection with Brazil's youth that means one thing in particular for the commercially savvy among the old: money.

Already, Neymar's face is being broadcast around the world -- even to Americans who may never have heard of him -- in television commercials for products ranging from soccer gear (of course!) to headphones (what?). Denise Liporaci, marketing coordinator for Unimed, one of FIFA's many official partners in Brazil, summed it up well. "He transcends the jersey," she said. "When he changes his haircut, kids want to copy him. What he represents to those fans is important for business and the market."

The market has certainly responded. With the player putting his career in the hands of David Beckham's management team since arriving in Europe to play for FC Barcelona, it seems the roadshow is just getting started. "Our primary focus in the first stage will be on building Neymar's profile in Asia, where we believe there is real potential for growth," said Simon Oliveira, Beckham's publicist, last year. Neymar has already collected $16 million worth of endorsements, so the companies paying him must have much more on the line.

With the wheels in motion, it's easy to forget about the actual football. If Neymar fails to become a sporting legend, many of those grand plans will be laid to dust. That's where this summer comes in. The stage has been set, the millions have been spent, the superstar has been created, and the narrative is in place. All that remains is for Neymar to seize the moment. His moment. Brazil's moment. No pressure.

Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

Welcome to Midfield General!

There's more to the World Cup than a bunch of soccer games and funky hairstyles.

How many lives would be saved if the world's great powers settled their disputes on the soccer field? How much more quickly would trade negotiations end if they depended only on the outcome of penalty kicks? How much better would the United Nations work if Sepp Blatter ruled member states with an iron fist?

A kid can dream, right?

These are fantasies, of course, but the World Cup isn't just about soccer, Neymar's faux hawk, or Nike's slick ads. Sometimes, there's much more on the line for the teams and countries involved, and that's where we come in.

We all love the beautiful game, of course, and we'll be glued to the television until July 13 -- but we can't help thinking about the political, economic, social, and cultural issues intertwined with the world's biggest sporting event. For one wonderful month, billions of people will focus on Brazil, a country proud of its soccer heritage but also fraught with the kinds of governance problems that might make even FIFA, the corruption-plagued organizers of the World Cup, blush. Will this once-proud BRIC ride its soccer team back to glory, or will the tournament just paper over the cracks in its haphazard development as Latin America's first superpower? We'll be watching.

We'll also be looking at how the World Cup reflects the dangers and benefits of globalization, and the systemic risks that have lately dogged economies great and small. And when a match has geopolitical implications, like when East Germany and West Germany faced off in 1974, we'll be there to read deeper meaning into every sliding tackle. If this sounds like it could end up being a little bit tongue-in-cheek, well, sometimes it will be. But that's part of the fun.

Every soccer team needs a midfield general to sit back, see the larger field of play, and make sense of it for his or her teammates. That's exactly what we'll be hoping to do for you as we look beyond the action on the field.

So, you're probably wondering, who is this "we"? It's a great team of our own, from one of the sport's most exciting poets to one of the region's leading pundits. So without further ado, here's Midfield General's starting XI:

Adam Bate (@ghostgoal) is a soccer writer for Sky Sports and a regular contributor to various other magazines and websites around the world.

Kevin Bleyer (@kevinbleyer) is a four-time Emmy-winning television writer, occasional New York Times bestselling book writer, and once-in-a-while speechwriter. But what really matters is that his brother does play-by-play for the Portland Timbers.

Andrea Canales (@soccercanales) writes on soccer in the United States and Mexico. She is based in Los Angeles, which combines both worlds.

Pedro Cifuentes (@pedrocifuentes) is a Spanish journalist and editor who lives, works and travels between Latin America and Spain. He is now covering the World Cup (and its malaise) for El País after having tried a few more boring things in his professional career.

Michael Goodman (@TheM_L_G) is a freelance soccer writer who's work can frequently be found on Grantland.com. He also believes that counting things is a good idea.

Hernán Iglesias Illa (@HernaniiBA) is a freelance writer in Buenos Aires and the author of books about Wall Street, Miami, and Domingo Sarmiento's 1847 trip around the United States. He's a River Plate and Arsenal fan who accepts only the label "bielsista."

Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) is a poet, journalist and public relations consultant. He has written two books about football, the first of which, A Cultured Left Foot, was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

Shannon O'Neil (@shannonkoneil) is Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead.

Benjamin Pauker (@benpauker) is Foreign Policy's executive editor and the author of a chapter on Ukraine's modest Germany 2006 ambitions in The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup. He was born in New York but grew up in Brazil, Australia, and Thailand, so he can -- without shame -- bandwagon-jump on at least three World Cup teams this year.

Rana Sarkar (@RanaSarkar_) Rana Sarkar is National Director of High Growth Markets for KPMG Canada and Senior Fellow and Board Co-Chairman at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Daniel Altman, captain (@altmandaniel), is Foreign Policy's global economics columnist and owner of North Yard Analytics, a sports data analysis firm. His last soccer team retired his jersey -- if "retired" means they told him he could keep the shirt if he'd just leave and go home.

Join us as we explore the games behind the game!

Getty Images - Ezra Shaw / Getty Images - Stu Forster / Getty Images - Stu Forster / Getty Images