The Brazilian superstar has become the epitome of footballing excess, but remains as popular as ever back home
Despite speculation linking him to either Barcelona or Real Madrid this summer, he is likely to remain in PSG for one more season
On a nondescript intersection surrounded by narrow alleys and shops, a plain building in Praia Grande in São Paulo state comes to life. Children in worn-out football jerseys scurry out of alley corners as vans carrying futsal players pull up in front of two main gates. This is the Neymar Jr Institute, where thousands of children and families are given a chance to get their lives back on track through free education curated around the ideals of sport. The children reach out to touch those who walk through the temporary barricading, but the man they really want to touch is beyond their reach. A black helicopter hovers high above the intersection with the letters NJR printed on it. Neymar grew up on these streets, but the superstar now arrives from the skies.
Amidst feverish speculation about his club future, the 27-year-old has returned home for the world finals of the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five, an international futsal tournament (12-13 July). Qualification tournaments are held in several countries, and the winners of those national finals are flown to Brazil on an all-inclusive trip to fight for the world championship. The reward, in addition to experiencing the footballing culture of Brazil, is playing against Neymar himself, and then travelling to watch him play for whichever club he ends up in. India’s Kalina Rangers from Mumbai are also here, having won the India finals in which more than 3,000 teams took part.
As children scream and wave at Neymar, who watches the finals perched on top of the stands set up around the futsal courts of the institute, the Brazilian probably knows that these are his last few days of rest and relaxation before he returns to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the club which paid a world-record €222 million (around ₹1,687 crore now) to sign him from Barcelona in 2017, but has just announced that they will let him go if the right offer comes in.
After scoring 105 goals and creating another 76 in just 186 matches for Barcelona, Neymar had decided to leave Spain for France, hoping to escape the indomitable shadow of Lionel Messi and assert himself as the best in the world. But it hasn’t been easy for him in Paris. Despite winning two league titles with PSG, Neymar has been troubled by injuries, fought with his teammates, smacked an opposition fan for taunting him, and was turned into a meme for rolling around too much at the 2018 World Cup. To make matters worse, the emergence of Kylian Mbappé means he isn’t the most wanted player at PSG any more. Just a day after the world finals of his tournament, he said his best football memory was beating his current club while he was with his former club.
“You want me to tell you about Neymar the player or Neymar the person?" asks Danniel Ottoni, a journalist who has covered football in Brazil for a decade. It is a common query when one asks about the man whose face is graffitied on the walls across the country.
“Neymar the player is immensely talented. Tremendous potential, no doubt. But there are sections who believe that some of his behaviour is hampering what can be a special career," Ottoni adds. Another journalist, who covers football for a newspaper in Belo Horizonte and didn’t want to be named, calls him “a baby with terrible advisers who keep whispering all the wrong things in his ears". In 2010, after a match against Neymar’s Santos, then Atlético Goianiense coach René Simões had said Brazil were “creating a monster" by tolerating his behaviour.
Two months ago, the footballer also had to deal with an allegation of rape. Neymar denied the allegation and his management has claimed it was part of an extortion attempt. The case was closed by the São Paulo police owing to lack of evidence and will now be evaluated by prosecutors.
“Jealousy plays a huge role in what people here think about Neymar. For me personally, he is the best Brazil currently has, but those here only scrutinize the matches he plays for the country. Even then, he is just 20 goals behind Pelé in the all-time international scorers’ list. The commentators on TV here kill him—the tiniest mistakes are amplified and most of the people who play him down don’t really understand the pressures of being the most popular player in Brazil," says former Mohun Bagan and East Bengal player Eduardo Ferreira, who is from Região dos Lagos, 120km from Rio de Janeiro. When Neymar went out injured in the 2014 World Cup, captain David Luiz and goalkeeper Júlio César held his shirt while singing the national anthem before the semi-final loss against Germany.
Even in Brazil, however, Neymar is a divisive figure. It is as easy to see why he is disliked as it is to see why he is adored. On the pitch with the winners of Neymar Jr’s Five, and with limited fitness, he plays as long as time permits. He displays his repertoire of flicks, rainbows, step-overs—the lightness of his touch and the ease with which he moves is a delight to watch. He is one of the few Brazilians who will pull off a move learnt on the streets at the biggest stage in the world. Every touch is greeted by a roar, and, during the breaks, he obliges those requesting selfies. Watching him thus, it is hard to envision Neymar as a difficult person, and blame is almost always deflected to his family—primarily his father—who also act as his agents.
In early July, in an interview to French sports newspaper L’Equipe, Neymar’s former adviser Eduardo Musa blamed Neymar Sr for most of his son’s troubles. “I think he has stopped doing things with his heart, this is the problem. Neymar and his staff are in permanent conflict. Neymar is faithful to those who have been there the longest, especially his father, he (Neymar Sr) can direct every aspect of his son’s career. Neymar himself is a guy with class, he’s endearing and generous, but the image the media has of him is completely the opposite and his father is responsible for that.
“Forget about his image, leave commercial obligations to one side and forget about the idea of being number one.... He has to recover his love for football and this depends solely on him," Musa said.
Mumbai-based sports psychologist Nicole Menezes concurs with how important a support system can be to a player like Neymar. “In my opinion, one must be mindful while choosing one’s team. A team you can trust, a team that’s working towards flourishing and not just surviving through the stardom. It becomes extremely important to seek the right emotional and mental support, since dealing with stressors can exhaust you from doing your job. Having the right people on board only makes it easier to think clearly and focus on what you are meant to do—in Neymar’s case, go on the field and own the sport."
Football-crazy Hugo Travassos, who works as a receptionist at a hostel in Rio de Janeiro, reflects the way most Brazilians think. “I think the word we can best use to describe him in Portuguese is vacilou (colloquially used for someone who has let people down). That said, we love watching him succeed, and when he does something wrong, like lash out at the fan in France, we understand. We Brazilians are expressive and explosive people—we are generally very polite, but if someone taunts us and ribs us, we will give it back. That’s what he did."
As the sun sets behind the peaks on either side of Rio’s most popular beaches, street vendors display their wares for thousands of locals and tourists. Many of them are selling replicas of the Brazilian national team kit. The manicured roads of Copacabana and Ipanema turn into a sea of yellow. Many of the jerseys have the names of players at the back.
A family of six from São Paulo has a loud discussion on which child will get to wear Neymar’s shirt because they sell out so quickly. One of the children starts crying and wins the battle. The other has to make do with a Philippe Coutinho shirt. This, despite Brazil winning the Copa América without Neymar in the team.
This is a country and a sport where one goal can turn millions to your side. It is clear that Brazilians are still not done with Neymar—as Travassos says, there is still time. “We would just like to see him play again. For Brazil. For himself. For the love of football."
The writer was in Brazil at the invitation of Red Bull, organizers of the Neymar Jr’s Five futsal tournament.