SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The last 13 months have been good to David Luiz, who goes into the semi-final of the World Cup not just as captain of Brazil but as one of the most popular players with both team mates and fans.
Before last year’s Confederations Cup, Luiz was one of the top players in Europe but he was not well known among the general public in his homeland.
That changed as the central defender played in every game of the tournament the host nation won by beating world and European champions Spain in the final.
This year he has played in every minute of Brazil’s march to the semi-finals, scoring two goals and turning in performances that have won him a place in FIFA’s constantly updated first 11.
His stock has risen to the point he will wear the captain’s armband against Germany on Tuesday in place of suspended Thiago Silva.
Luiz, 27, has also emerged as a leader off the field. After superstar Neymar he is the player the fans most want to see at training and his friendship and good humor have made him a favorite with teammates.
“David Luiz is a happy guy, he cheers us up and he encourages us and is demanding, too,” Neymar said before Luiz’ goal sealed a 2-1 victory over Colombia. “He is one of the most important players in the group. I joked with him that if he’s sad, we’ll all feel sad too.”
Luiz’s rapport with Brazilian fans is perhaps unexpected given that he left Brazil at a young age.
He began his professional career at Vitoria, in Salvador, Bahia. Vitoria are one of the biggest clubs in the northeast but like other teams outside the more developed south of the country they don’t get the same media coverage and their players are generally less well known nationwide.
Luiz was at Vitoria less than a year after making his debut in 2006 before he was snapped up by Benfica. He arrived in Portugal aged just 20 and after four years there he was transferred to Chelsea where he won a Champions League and an FA Cup in his second season.
He was a fixture for the London side, usually in central defense but sometimes anchoring midfield, and was highly rated by a succession of coaches, including Luiz Felipe Scolari. He improved under each one with his authority growing and his concentration lapses becoming less frequent.
Luiz recently joined Paris St. Germain for a fee estimated at between 40 and 50 million pounds and next season he will partner his selecao team mate Thiago Silva at the heart of the defense.
If you could pinpoint the moment Luiz emerged as a major star in Brazil it came in the 41st minute of last year’s Confederations Cup final.
He got back to cover an open goal and clear a Pedro Rodriguez shot off the line. Brazil were winning 1-0 at the time and the save was greeted almost as a goal by the capacity crowd. Brazil went on to win 3-0, handing Spain their heaviest competitive defeat in almost four decades, and Luiz was one of the heroes of the match.
Since then, as Brazil paid more and more attention to the European-based players who would be charged with winning them their sixth World Cup title, Luiz has stood out not just as a commanding presence in the heart of the defense, but as one of the most polite and charming players in the squad.
Luiz comes across as endearingly empathetic and was the first to run from the center circle to throw an arm round teammates Marcelo and Willian when they missed penalties in the shoot-out against Chile.
And then he won praise the world over by postponing celebrating the win over Colombia to console tearful Colombian James Rodriguez.
“I like to try and have the sensitivity to understand what the other person is going through,” he said afterwards.
Those qualities, along with an easy smile, and a trademark mop of blonde curls that is one of the best known soccer haircuts since Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama, have attracted sponsors.
The Sao Paulo native now has almost as many major deals as Neymar, with international brands such as Nike, Gillette, Gatorade, and Pepsi, and also major local firms Tam airlines and Vivo telecoms.
Barring disasters, and even if Brazil do not win their sixth World Cup, Luiz will leave this tournament in better shape than he entered it.
Fans and teammates would say that is deserved.
(Refiled to fix the spelling of Scolari’s first name in paragraph 11)
Reporting by Andrew Downie, Editing by Nigel Hunt