Oscar finally steps into the spotlight
It was never going to be something he'd wildly celebrate, no matter how beautiful the run, the composure to fend off an overeager marker or the casual brilliance of his toe-poked finish. Oscar is not a man of effusive goal routines and that didn't change even once he scored Brazil's vital third in their controversial 3-1 win against Croatia to open the World Cup.
But he did let his feet speak for him and boy, what a high-decibel reminder it was of his importance to the Seleção.
The timing could not have been better, either. The buildup for the Seleção's opening game in Group A was marked by a debate in which Oscar could have gotten second-degree burns from his time in the spotlight. The Brazilian media talked at length about his increasingly quiet displays for Chelsea and in training and the warm-up friendlies against Panama and Serbia. There were calls for his country and club teammate Willian to start instead.
People were more worried than last year when the same debate was also quelled by a timely goal in Brazil's 3-0 win over France in Porto Alegre, Brazil, ahead of the Confederations Cup. Back then, Luiz Felipe Scolari worried publicly about Oscar being burnt out after a season in which he had played more than 70 games. The Chelsea man was exhausted, but this season, the problem was reversed: Oscar's lack of games saw Willian become a more regular feature for Jose Mourinho in the second half of their Premier League campaign.
"Everybody is here to fight for a place and it is the manager who decides at the end. All I can do is work hard as I've always done for the Seleção. I don't really believe a bad game or a bad training session will be enough for me to lose my place," Oscar said a few days before the start of the World Cup, not hiding a hint of annoyance that also sounded like resignation.
Furthermore, Scolari himself had toyed with using Ramires to beef up the midfield alongside Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho, but Big Phil stuck to his hunch that the grandiosity of the occasion would compel Oscar to rise. The manager's faith was repaid in the 30th minute at the Arena Corinthians when the Chelsea man won possession near the Croatian box and served up Neymar for Brazil's equalizer. He then capped things with that beauty of a goal in the second half, but what left Scolari purring was that Oscar led Brazil's disarming statistics all game long.
"This kid has a golden heart and he never shies from working for the team. Only you guys had any doubt that I was going to start him in this game," teased the Brazil manager in his postgame news conference, referring to all the speculation the manager himself had fueled.
That the change in personnel would have required some tinkering with Scolari's system went remarkably unnoticed amid all the debate. Yet Scolari kept his faith in the shy boy from Americana, one of the towns in the industrial belt near São Paulo.
People who know Oscar say he still resembles the 13-year-old who joined Sao Paulo FC's famous youth academy in 2004 and was immediately nicknamed "the little Kaká" given his resemblance of that famous alumnus' style. The irony is that years later Oscar would be one the reasons counting against Kaka's failed bid to win back a place in the Seleção squad.
Oscar's rise, though, should not have come as a surprise. His remarkable performances at the 2011 Youth World Cup, including a hat trick in the final against Portugal, suggested Brazil had a diamond in the making. However, it was almost tarnished in a horrendous judicial dispute between São Paulo FC and SC Internacional, the club he had joined two years earlier amid much controversy. Oscar took São Paulo to court over perceived breaches of contract, but in 2012, his former employers counterattacked and the tug-of-war sidelined the rising star for almost two months.
What saved him was Brazil's Olympic dream at London 2012. In the hunt for as many under-23 players as he could find, then-Seleção manager Mano Menezes decided to draft Oscar and throw him into the deep end by starting him in a friendly against Denmark. A brace marked his debut and contributed to the Seleção escaping the rut they fell into after South Africa 2010. While Neymar is the undisputed star of the company, Oscar rose as an unsung supporting act.
It will be interesting to see how he will cope with David Luiz's departure to PSG; his Chelsea teammate was like an older brother Oscar could hide behind. At Luiz's flat in Putney, for example, there are tender pictures of Oscar with the defender's parents. That said, there are also signs that the 23-year-old is finally leaving some of the shyness behind. Passengers arriving at São Paulo's international airport, for example, bump into pictures of the bare-chested Chelsea playmaker modeling jeans and underwear for Calvin Klein.
"It was something different to do, but I liked the result," Oscar said after describing the experience of seeing himself on outdoor billboards across the city.
Brazilian media outlets recently reported that Oscar's endorsements are now responsible for earnings of over 3 million pounds per year. This is peanuts compared to what his teammate Neymar makes, granted, but still a remarkable amount given how uncomfortable and fragile Oscar always looked in public situations. His natural environment had always been the pitch.
But as he has shown a couple of times, Oscar is priceless for Brazil. No matter how quiet he tries to be.