With his thick head of curly hair bobbing around whenever he is on the ball or chasing it down, watching David Luiz play is always a dramatic experience. At the recent FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, however, the buccaneering Brazil centre-half proved even more of a spectacle than usual. That much was clear as he exited the pitch following his side’s thrilling defeat of Spain in the final at the Maracana.
Hobbling along, his left eye slightly bruised, his nose disjointed and his shorts, socks and wristbands covered in grass stains, he looked as if he had just walked off a battle field. Brazil’s title win made all the knocks and bruises worth the while, however, as did the recognition of his grateful compatriots, who chanted his name in unison in the packed stands.
“It was exciting, no doubt about it,” he told FIFA.com after it was all over. “This is what it’s all about. I just try and do the impossible on the pitch to make these fans happy. We all knew we had a great opportunity here in this tournament.”
Somewhat undeservedly perhaps, Luiz had a relatively low profile in Brazil going into the tournament, the result of him taking a somewhat circuitous route to the national side.
Born in Diadema, Sao Paulo, the versatile defender played at youth level for O Tricolor Paulista before being transferred to Salvador club Vitoria, where he made his professional debut in 2006. Brazilian league runners-up in 1993 and losing finalists in the 2010 Copa do Brasil, Vitoria had fallen on hard times and were languishing in the Brazilian third tier when Luiz joined them. The following year, however, he was on his way to Benfica, crossing the Atlantic without having played a single game in the Brazilian top flight.
“I left at an early age but I’ve never stopped being a patriotic Brazilian,” explained Luiz. “I’ve never stopped singing the country’s praises abroad.”
Luiz joined the Lisbon giants as a 19-year-old loanee, and after initially struggling to find his feet he began to impose himself, earning the adulation of the Benfica fans and being named the Portuguese league’s player of the year in 2010. After completing another season at the Estadio da Luz he moved to Chelsea, where he made an instant impression.
By this time he had become a regular in the Brazil set-up, but with Brazil lacking in competitive football in the last couple of years, there were still doubts surrounding his place in the side in the lead-up to the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013.
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Luiz would soon dispel those doubts, however, undergoing all sorts of trials and tribulations in doing so. In Brazil’s second group match against Mexico he suffered a nasty blow to the face after colliding with central-defensive partner Thiago Silva. Bleeding profusely, he left the pitch for treatment on his wound, rejoining the fray a few minutes later.
Then in the final group match against Italy came another hefty injury, a painful blow on the leg forcing him to limp off and be replaced by Dante. Returning to the starting line-up for the semi-final against Uruguay, he took a whack on the cheek, yet another visible mark of his unflinching commitment to the national cause.
Further proof of that came in the final, in an incident that has already gone down in the annals of the Festival of Champions, in which he denied Pedro the chance to level the score at the end of a lightning Spanish counter-attack. With the livewire forward having slipped the ball past Julio Cesar and seemingly on its way into the net, Luiz arrived from nowhere to intercept the ball and somehow lift it over the bar to safety.
That dramatic goal-line clearance had the fans chanting his name. It was also the defender’s way of paying back his debt to his goalkeeper for saving Diego Forlan’s penalty in the semi-final against the Uruguayans, which Luiz had given away by fouling Diego Lugano.
“I was able to repay Julio Cesar for what he did for me,” said the all-action centre-half, who also has plenty of talent on the ball. “I helped the team out with a good clearance on the line, which came at a very important time too. If they’d scored then, it really would have lifted them.”
That ball-playing ability came to the fore in Brazil’s opening goal against the world champions. Though Fred attracted all the attention with his opportunistic finish from a prostrate position, the move that led to the goal started with Luiz’s pinpoint long-range pass to Hulk with his supposedly weaker left foot, a pass played with such precision it gave the impression he was naturally two-footed.
Those distribution skills, combined with his combative and well-timed tackling and his willingness to engage with the fans by signing autographs, having his photo taken and maintaining a high-profile online presence – to the extent that he kept them appraised of his recovery from nasal surgery with photos and messages – have helped make him a truly charismatic figure.
Qualities such as those have gone a long way to winning over a support that has taken its time to get used to the player and his style, though as Luiz explained, the pleasure has been all his: “It’s been a real privilege for me to have the whole stadium chanting my name, especially with them being my people. It was a wonderful, unforgettable moment.”