Published 24/06/2015 at 17:39 GMT | Updated 25/06/2015 at 13:08 GMT
With three defenders closing in, Neymar darted through space and in on goal. It was time to step up. After five consecutive victories since their disastrous World Cup exit, Brazil’s defence had been breached for the first time.
Tied with Austria at 1-1, Dunga needed a saviour. His captain just needed the ball. With nothing but clean air between him and the Austrian goalkeeper, Neymar peered over his shoulder at the gangly kid with ball at his feet and braced himself. He needn’t have bothered.
With little space for the pass, the kid ignored his team’s on- and off-pitch leader and fired an unstoppable drive into the top corner. Dunga had his win. And in an instant Brazil wondered if it had found its No.9, even if it was someone they’d never heard of.
When the 23-year-old Roberto Firmino was named in the squad for the first time in October last year a significant portion of the Brazilian media were scrambling to answer the question on everybody’s lips: Who?
Both may have tales from their respective childhoods substituting a ball for a teddy bear at bed time but while Neymar was looking around the Real Madrid facilities as a 13-year-old, Firmino was surviving poverty and enduring failed trials with the likes of Sao Paulo before moving east to begin his career with the less fashionable Figueirense club in Florianopolis.
One of the scores of Brazilians who left his homeland having barely made a splash in the local pond, he was plucked from the second-tier by German club Hoffenheim for around €4.5 million in 2010.
He was no overnight success: after a tricky start during which the club wondered if the move would prove a costly mistake, he overcame tales of indiscipline and poor punctuality before settling down and bulking up to adapt to the increased physicality of European football. His breakthrough season arrived in the 2013-14 campaign as he hit 16 goals in the Bundesliga, adding 12 assists.
A ‘nine-and-a-half’ he can operate as a traditional centre-forward or drop off to help build the play and work in the pockets of space around onrushing colleagues. Time and again he’s displayed his ability to shoot from range and has also improved in the tight confines of the penalty area as a poacher.
Brazil's soccer player Roberto Firmino arrives at a news conference in Santiago, Chile, June 23, 2015
Image credit: Reuters
He graduated from a promising attacking midfielder to an all-round forward far away from the often parochial gaze of his compatriots. But he’s certainly no stranger now.
He returned to the Brazil squad for the next set of friendlies in March and again came off the bench to score a winner, this time hitting the only goal of the game against Chile in London to exhibit his ability to time his runs and show a cool head in front of goal. "He can play for any club and with playing for Brazil that comes much easier” Dunga said after that match-winner.
He’s had to work for it, but Liverpool fans needn’t worry too much that he began the Copa America behind Diego Tardelli – a complete unknown to most European viewers – in the pecking order for Brazil’s false No. 9 role – the introduction of which was intended circumvent Brazil’s lack of striking options and bring the best out of Neymar.
Tardelli has lightening pace and roams from his position much more, leaving greater space for the Barcelona forward exploit (as he did for the equaliser against Peru last week). Neymar’s best post-World Cup performances have arrived when partnered with Tardelli.
Brazil's Firmino celebrates his goal against Honduras during a friendly football match in preparation for the Copa America Chile 2015 at Beira-Rio Stadium in Porto Alegre
Image credit: AFP
But with Neymar no more, it’s Roberto Firmino who looks to have won the battle to lead Brazil’s line after once again proving a match-winner as his goal gave the now Neymar-less Brazil a winning start in the 2-1 victory over Venezuela on Sunday.
A shy and affable character when in front of the microphones or walking the hotel lobby, the Brazilian media grown fond of his awkwardness in front of the cameras. Not that he’s afraid to stand up and be counted on the pitch, proving only too happy to take responsibility and unleash long-range drives at goal.
Schooled in Europe, the transition to the Premier League shouldn’t pose too many problems. Neither should another step into the limelight. He announced his arrival in international football by showing a willing to upstage the posterboy, captain and world-renowned ‘craque’.
“I think the time has come to take the next step,” he said this week. He’s been taking giant ones in recent months. Roberto Firmino has decided games for his country, and is certainly capable of doing the same at Anfield.