SAO PAOLO, December 4- When Wendell Lira soared through a rainy night sky to score the opening goal of a mid-season match in a Brazilian regional football league, there were 342 people in the stands.
None of them could have imagined that the unknown forward, who was released by his club, Goianesia, several months later, would end up competing with Lionel Messi for the Puskas Award, FIFA’s prize for the best goal of the year.
Lira, 26, was startled when he found out — quite literally.
He had just left his house in Goiania, in the heart of Brazil, on Monday morning when a car suddenly pulled up and blocked his path.
He thought he was about to be robbed.
But the driver got out, asked him for a photo, and told him his stunning bicycle kick against defending champions Atletico Goianiense eight months back had returned from the past to change his life.
“When I got the news, I didn’t believe it at first. Then my wife called me, crying, and I started crying with her. I couldn’t believe it. It was very emotional,” Lira told AFP, still dazed by the news.
Lira, a journeyman footballer schooled in the humble stadiums of Brazil’s lesser leagues, will share the stage on January 11 in Zurich with Barcelona superstar Messi and Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi, the other two finalists for the coveted award.
The prize, whose past winners include Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar and James Rodriguez, will be awarded during the Ballon d’Or ceremony for best player of the year — a star-studded, red-carpet gala watched in millions of homes around the world.
– Blue-collar football –
The journey since that rain-drenched March night led first to the opening round of the contest.
Lira learned on November 6 that world football’s governing body had shortlisted his goal as one of the 10 best scored and captured on video in official tournaments worldwide in the past year.
At the time, Lira — who earned about $1,300 a month when he scored the goal of his life — had been unemployed for three months, since the end of his season with Goianesia and a brief stint at third-tier side Tombense.
He was in the process of searching for a new club to continue making a living from the game he loves — like many of the working-class players who scrape by in football-crazed Brazil’s lower leagues.
An estimated 20,000 professional footballers in Brazil go unemployed each year when the regional leagues end in May.
“Life is complicated for a footballer who’s not in the first division. You go through a lot. A lot of times you don’t receive your paycheck, and we have to support our families,” said Lira, who has had to find odd jobs to pay the bills in the past.
– In Neymar’s footsteps -When Lira’s nomination started generating buzz, a leading club in his hometown, Vila Nova, signed him as its star recruit for its return to Brazil’s second-tier league next year.
“It’s changed my life. People know me, they want to take photos with me, they ask for my autograph and I’ve had new job offers. But thank God, now I’ve got a job. It’s crazy,” he said.
Lira still doesn’t know how his goal traveled some 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) from Goiania to FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
On January 11, he and his family will make the same trip — their first to Europe — thanks to online voters who chose him as a finalist and will now decide the final winner.
Lira plans to take a few pictures himself that day.
“The one I want to meet the most is Neymar, because he’s a Brazilian idol. But I would really like to greet Cristiano Ronaldo, too. I love the way he plays, he’s a phenomenon,” Lira said.
Neymar, a first-time finalist for the Ballon d’Or this year, is also the only Brazilian to win the Puskas Award since it was launched in 2009. He won four years ago with a goal scored for Brazilian side Santos.
His would-be heir says he’s not just going to Zurich as a tourist.
“Messi is a football genius, everything he does has a touch of genius. He’s surely the huge favorite to win this award. But I’m not going to make it easy for him!” said Lira, grinning.
Messi has won the Ballon d’Or four times, has seven La Liga titles and four Champions League triumphs — but, like Lira, he has never won the prize for the best goal of the year.