Brazil’s great hope, Barcelona’s new star and a one-man industry. Neymar lets Ben Isaacs into his world...
All across the city – from the airport to the Nou Camp Museum – fans wearing the traditional red and blue shirt (and less traditional ‘football steward’ neon yellow third kit) are everywhere. Two things are obvious: firstly, about 90 per cent of these are cheap bootlegs; secondly, about half of all current shirts bear the name of FCB’s crown prince: Neymar Jr.
But, despite his mega-stardom and endorsement deals off the field (we’re here because of his new line of Police sunglasses), he is not what we expect. In a room overlooking an FC Barcelona training pitch, we are not faced with a global icon, a brand manager’s mannequin or a bored cynic. We meet a shy, polite 22-year-old who just loves football.
“All the offers and interest from clubs, it would reach my parents first,” he says of his early days. “My father [a former footballer himself] was always by my side. He was like a filter so I could just absorb myself in playing football. I don’t know if I was one of the best among my friends, but I was always one of the first ones picked [for teams].”
And nowadays he’s likely to be new national coach Dunga’s first name on the Brazil teamsheet, as the country moves on from its World Cup nightmare. Neymar was the face of football’s return to its spiritual home. His picture was everywhere: a young man the population could rally behind, despite the economic and social strife in the air. YouTube even had a selection of video tutorials for men looking to replicate his distinctive haircut and, judging by the number of questionable dye-jobs in the stands and on the streets, they got plenty of hits.
Neymar-mania began when he won the Golden Ball at the 2013 Confederations Cup on home soil, scoring four goals, including one in the 3-0 victory over Spain in the final. A supposed dry run for the 2014 World Cup; everyone thought Brazil would lift the trophy at the Maracanã. To recap: Neymar scored the host’s first goal in an opening night 3-1 win over Croatia. Another brace followed against Cameroon, before he insouciantly slotted in the decisive penalty in a second-round shootout with Chile. But, as Brazil held a precarious 2-1 lead over Colombia in a bad-tempered quarter-final, Juan Zuniga fractured one of Neymar’s vertebrae. Social media’s amateur medics tweeted that he was paralysed. This match, they said, was the last time Neymar would kick a ball. Game over.
Neymar the redeemer
He missed the rest of the tournament, which included the mind-blowing 7-1 annihilation by Germany in the semi-final. The country was plunged into deep mourning. No nation’s identity is as defined by its football as Brazil’s, and the elimination was not just a hugely disappointing sporting result, it was also a crushing blow to a nation’s self-esteem. Neymar was meant to be lifting a trophy, not confined to a hospital bed. His teammates wore matching hats bearing the slogan ‘Força Neymar’ (Be strong, Neymar). The team looked emotionally drained even before the kick-off – they’d put the World Cup on Neymar’s shoulders as much as the public.
When we ask about it, he’s reluctant to discuss the back break and gives a look you’d expect from a small child asked to relive the loss of a treasured teddy bear. “It was terrible. I don’t like to watch my teams,” he says shaking his head. “Win or lose, I want to be out there. What happened against Germany is beyond explanation. I’m national captain now and we’re trying to see which route we’re going to take. But it will be joyful.”
The pressure he was under during the tournament would be unbearable for most young men. And now he’s even had a taste of the skipper’s armband, including for last month’s Superclásico De Las Américas win over Argentina (played in Beijing, because: money). But he can clearly deal with everything the business of sport throws at him.
“I have a tattoo saying ‘Life is a joke’, because I always have to be light and not take things too seriously,” he says. “I try to leave the pressure away from the pitch and play as if I’m kicking the ball around in my backyard. When you reach a certain level, there are a lot of things to deal with, but I always keep my focus on the game.”
These aspects always include sponsors and commercial partners. How does the modern footballer keep a grip on the game with all these extra commitments? Obviously, Neymar knows what he’s doing: he’s twice been named the most marketable sportsman in the world by SportsPro magazine.
“It’s an honour to work with the companies I’m involved in, but I only do it when I feel comfortable with the brand,” he says. “It’s a personal thing, choosing which ones I like or don’t. I really like wearing sunglasses a lot, and I fell in love with the Police brand, so working with them in a partnership came naturally.”
When we say that he should be lobbying Fifa to let players wear shades on the pitch on sunny days, he lets out a hearty laugh and says his friends would say, “Wow, you’re really stylish now, huh?"
Hero in a hatchback
Unlike his teammate Lionel Messi, currently celebrating what the club is calling a ‘dream decade’, Neymar didn’t grow up at Barcelona’s La Masia (The Farmhouse) training academy. Instead, when he was 11, his parents moved the family across the state of Sao Paulo to the port city of Santos. There, he joined the Santos FC youth team. If the club was good enough for a 15-year-old Pelé…
Within two years of arriving at Santos, the European giants were taking notice, and a 14-year-old Neymar was invited to the Bernabeu for a trial with Real Madrid. “When I came to Madrid and realised so many teams were talking about me and I was in the media, it still didn’t affect me. I tried to not let it go to my head.”
He was offered a place at the club, but the deal reportedly fell through because Real Madrid balked at the £48,000 asking price. His father has since revealed in court that the club later offered £116m for Neymar in 2013 (he, instead, controversially joined Barcelona in a £50m deal).
“I can’t remember exactly when it became clear that Barcelona wanted me, but to join the club was always one of my dreams,” says Neymar, ever on-message.
“I was thrilled; jumping for joy. Now, me and Messi, we try to dribble the ball round each other in training.”
As ever, the boy from Brazil lights up whenever he’s discussing the simple pleasure of a ball at his feet. And he’s not lost his innocence. When he leaves the training complex he does so driving a Beetle (we’d lost count of the Ferraris), with his new glasses on. His future’s so bright he has to wear his own shades.