The Brazilian departed the shadow of Lionel Messi to join PSG for £198million last summer
In Neymar Jr’s family home, tears, anger and shock are subsiding and resignation takes over. Germany’s Andre Schurrle strokes the ball into the Brazilian goal and a home World Cup has morphed from opportunity into devastation. Seventy-nine minutes and seven goals into the semi-final and a wheelchair-bound Neymar decides enough is enough.
‘Screw it,’ said Neymar reportedly. He grabbed the remote, switched off the television and turned to his friends. ‘Let’s play poker.’
The 2014 World Cup was supposed to mark Neymar’s ascent to deity status in Brazil, when his name would join the lineage of Pele, Socrates, Bebeto and Ronaldo.
Neymar is ready to show his country that he can emulate former heroes Pele and Ronaldo
Neymar told the Player’s Tribune new media company: ‘I just cried at home, I would see my mum, my dad, crying — everyone sad, my friends, family… and this, to me, has been the worst moment.’
Yet this World Cup in Russia offers redemption for Neymar and the national team. Those players recall the public response to the 7-1; how the nation’s flag was burned in one square in Sao Paulo and tear gas was needed to quell disgruntled Brazilians in Recife.
Optimism has returned. During qualification, Brazil scored more than twice as many goals as Argentina and finished 10 points clear of second-placed Uruguay. Brazil even beat Germany in a friendly in Berlin in March.
Neymar suffers his World Cup-ending back injury against Colombia four years ago in Brazil
Brazil fans even held a vigil for Neymar outside the hospital after his injury against Colombia
Neymar is now 26. He is the world’s most expensive footballer after Paris Saint-Germain spent £198million to extract him from Barcelona last summer and a reported salary of £600,000 per week.
The most jaw-dropping statement on the day of his unveiling came from PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi. He explained that before signing Neymar, he valued his club at €1billion. ‘And now it is worth €1.5bn,’ he smirked.
On the ESPN World Fame list for athletes, Neymar ranks fourth behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James and Lionel Messi. His social media following is in excess of 90 million, which is over 30 million more than US President Donald Trump.
To some, Neymar is a true hero, a player who brings joy and pleasure to millions. To others, he is the epitome of the sport’s most rotten excesses. He is a riddle of contradictions, so just who is the real Neymar?
In the ramshackle streets of Praia Grande, some young teenagers have set up a street game. It is throwback stuff; jumpers for goalposts, shirts against skins, and for a few hours every evening, this crumbling and decaying road is their Maracana.
The 2018 World Cup offers Neymar and the national team a chance at redemption
Between the ages of seven and 14, this was home for Neymar and his family. Located on the coast, 45 minutes from Sao Paulo, children face a daily battle to extricate themselves from a life of petty crime, gang violence and drugs.
Neymar very nearly did not make it that far. In Luca Caioli’s biography of the superstar, he recalls how, as a four-month-old baby, Neymar (known as Juninho by his family) was in the back of the car when his father suffered a life-threatening accident. In the rain and fog, the family car was hit head-on. Neymar Sr suffered a dislocated pelvis.
Neymar Jr was thrust under his seat by the impact and was smothered in blood as part of the vehicle teetered over the road edge with a choppy river below. All three survived, and the baby had only a cut to the head.
In Praia Grande, Neymar has remained true to his roots. At number No274, Rua B, the house hand-built by his father and two friends is now occupied by a cousin. In 2014, the family opened the Neymar Institute. It is radically changing the lives of local children.
Neymar has remained true to his roots in Praia Grande, investing £7m in the area he grew up
Plonked between houses that are barely houses and battered shop fronts sits a pristine and futuristic safe haven for the area’s most deprived children. The facilities better those at England’s most exclusive private schools.
Neymar’s initial £7m investment has provided football pitches, a swimming pool, a dance suite, volleyball courts, tennis courts and a basketball space. The institute is available only to low-income families and there are tie-ups with six local schools. Neymar and his father continue to invest £1.6m per year.
The centre director, Joel Moraes, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It has reduced violence levels, improved education and offered hope.
‘The kids see Neymar and believe a kid from a place like this can become an important person in society. It does not need to be in football. In fact, we insist they follow our full course, which is both education and multi-sport.’
Brazil have a fervent obsession with Neymar – who characterizes the spirit of Brazilian football
In essence, the Neymar Institute ensures free private healthcare, education and a community hub for over 1,000 local kids.
Sponsors contribute. So when we see Neymar lining up for a commercial shoot and roll our eyes, it appears the incentive is not only his promotion but also ensuring investment for his town.
‘A ball is like the most jealous woman in the world,’ Neymar once said. ‘If you do not treat her well, she will not love you and she can even hurt you. I love her to bits.’
Neymar was formed by small-sided futsal, where he learnt to navigate tight spaces and deceive opponents.
At Santos, he was coached by former Brazil international and Pele’s old room-mate Lima. He told The Daily Mail in 2014: ‘He was really thin so we had to change the nutrition. He would eat a lot of junk food. Burgers. And he would drink sodas. We changed all that.’
For Neymar, the pull of Brazil is strong. He stayed at Santos longer than expected, resisting interest from Real Madrid as a 14-year-old. Yet while his father claimed Neymar hankered for home, the Spanish media reported his agent wanted extra cash.
In 2010, West Ham offered £12m and the platform for Neymar to use the club as a stepping stone in the manner of Carlos Tevez. The bid was rebuffed. Yet when Chelsea came in, only an emergency sales pitch by Santos marketing manager Antonio Neto, in which he argued Neymar could become a Brazil sporting icon to rival of Ayrton Senna, persuaded the family to remain once more.
When he was 21, however, Barcelona signed him for £49m. He joined with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez to create a devastating trio that lifted the Champions League in 2015, with Neymar scoring in the 3-1 victory over Juventus in the final.
The 26-year-old has 55 goals for his country already — a total reached from 85 appearances
Yet last summer, he decided to leave Messi’s shadow and walk alone at PSG. The figures are eye-watering and some accounts have his father claiming as much as £36m from the deal. The pressure is huge: if he does not win the Champions League with PSG or the World Cup with Brazil, many will cast him as a failure.
In Paris, it has been a testing start. His campaign was hit by injury and PSG crashed out of the Champions League at the round-of-16 stage. PSG manager Unai Emery struggled to accept Neymar’s status. Certainly, it entered prima donna levels.
Reports emerged that Neymar considered himself above the manager’s exacting video analysis sessions. He was the only first-team player to miss the club’s Christmas party at Disneyland Paris. Instead, he went to Brazil, where he was pictured socialising.
Neymar’s personal image team would send a factfile to journalists ahead of PSG games — with facts only about Neymar. He also has his own physio and tensions between players surfaced in September when Edinson Cavani wanted to take a penalty but Neymar publicly overruled him. Talk of a move to Real Madrid persists.
It is not easy to reconcile the showbiz Neymar with the personality painted of him at home
‘At Man City, the leader is Pep Guardiola. At PSG, it is Neymar,’ concluded Emery in May.
It is not easy to reconcile the showbiz Neymar with the personality painted at home.
Despite Barcelona’s outcry over his departure, Neymar remains close to former team-mates. He recently did an interview with Gerard Pique for the Spaniard’s Player’s Tribune website.
Conversation turned to World Cup memories: ‘I was two years old, my first memory was on the TV, and Romario scoring the goals, one goal that … that Romario scored against Holland I remember, those Bebeto crosses, and he takes first time, and it’s a “Golazo!”. That’s the first one. And then second is from 2002. I watched the whole tournament and remember everything … Ronaldo….’
Now the time has come for Neymar’s own star to rise.