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