He’s the darling of the Brazilian national team and the poster-boy for a host nation desperately in need of a World Cup good news story. In Europe, they question if he deserves the hype after a difficult first year at Barcelona but his personality is at odds with the reputation that preceded him. As we saw in last year’s Confederations Cup, Neymar Jr could be about to light up the tournament and live up to the legend that it seems has already been created for him.
At the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, the Brazilian Football Confederation forgot to send the player list to the event organisers. Therefore FIFA assigned random digits resulting in Pelé quite accidentally receiving the number 10. The jersey has since come to be synonymous with creative players, being worn in recent times by the likes of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and Kaká. Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior donned the number for Brazil’s triumphant Confederations Cup win last summer and he will do the same at this World Cup.
Every Brazilian football team has had a star name. Some failed to live up to the legends of yesteryear but at 22 years of age, Neymar Jr is a player for the digital age. His face is everywhere in Brazil from milk cartons to flat-screen TVs. The jury is still out on whether he will be hoisted amongst the greats of the game but the next four weeks may well provide the evidence they need. However, his budding superstar status has flocks of people doing sports betting online in guarantees that he’ll deliver.
His move to Barcelona saw a début season described as average to shocking depending on who you listen to.
And yet he was criticised in many quarters before he ever left Santos. Labelled a Youtube creation because of viral videos of insane pieces of skill always came with the qualifier that Neymar was playing in a far inferior league.
People wanted an ego to go with the criticism. After all we knew he was the icon of Brazil, the next Pelé, so he must have had the arrogance to go with it. But his quiet demeanour, humble words when unveiled at the Nou Camp, and generosity to supporters at Brazil’s training sessions are at odds with the preconceived impression before he arrived in Europe.
In Ireland, it seems, Eamon Dunphy has decided he won’t be given a chance. The outspoken RTE pundit labelled him a “terrible signing” before he had kicked a ball in anger for the Blaugrana. Dunphy does not rate Brazil’s chances at this World Cup and his tone is either dismissive or outright contemptuous of their talisman Neymar.
You can’t help feeling the pundit wanted the Brazilian to be his new Cristiano Ronaldo, so he could swim against the tide in declaring, in famous Dunphy style, ‘He’s not a great player’.
The things about the Portuguese that Giles and Dunphy detested in his earlier days, the histrionics, the diving, unfortunately can also be found in Neymar but he’s hardly the first ‘foreign’ player to possess those bad habits. It is one of the real flaws in his game and existed since he played in the Campeonato Brasileirao.
But whereas Ronaldo can flex his bare torso in an extreme exercise of posturing as he did in the Champions League final, Neymar is still the Brazilian kid who runs to the corner flag to dance choreographed moves with his teammates.
In the huge furore over his transfer to Barcelona, what was often overlooked was the view of Brazilians themselves. Of course they know the best players come to Europe and they want their internationals to do well there. But if they return home? The players are still football stars in a country with a population of almost 200 million people where the sport is ingrained in the fabric of society.
American sportsmen don’t need to be known outside the States to be regarded as icons and the same is true of Brazilians. The fact that football is the global game means its inevitable they will be attracted to the European leagues but success can be subjective.
The same players are dismissed as not able for the European game by football fans in this part of the world. The ex-Middlesbrough star Juninho is a hero on Tyneside because he lit up the Premier League playing for an average team. And when the Brazilian left along with the dazzling Emerson? Middlesbrough eventually returned to the hum-drum ‘British’ style displayed by so many lower level English clubs.
Not cutting it in the hack ’em and sack ’em of technically poor British teams is hardly a criticism likely to faze them. A previous shining light of the Seleção, Robinho, was written off because he didn’t quite cut it at Man City but after he left the Etihad, he didn’t go home with his tail between his legs. The two-time La Liga winner with Real Madrid went to AC Milan where he clinched a Serie A title and four years after ‘failing’ in England, still plays his football at the San Siro.
At just 19, Neymar was named South American Footballer of the Year, the same year he became a father to baby boy David Lucca. Now 22 years of age, Neymar has 31 goals in 49 international appearances. He scored 54 goals in 103 appearances for Santos in Brazil.
His comments when joining Barcelona conveyed a humility that goes against the image of a giant ego. He continually repeated that he was coming to play with the best player in the world in Lionel Messi. Contrast that, for example, if Zlatan Ibrahimovic were to return to the Catalan club.
Just this week the pictures of Neymar taking a young kid onto the Brazil training ground echo what he did in a recent friendly in South Africa.
Last season Neymar netted 9 times in La Liga in a campaign interrupted by injury. The criticisms of his season at Barcelona are valid considering the enormous transfer fee. Many Barca observers spoke of a reluctance on his part to show more selfishness in front of goal in the earlier part of the season, constantly looking to pass off to Messi when in advanced positions.
When the Argentine was out through injury, Neymar’s displays saw a marked improvement leading many to say the two struggled to ignite when in the same team.
Neymar’s goalscoring let him down especially as he was getting in the right areas. He scored 13 goals in all competitions, with 8 assists but it was a poor return on the chances he missed, 68 shots at goal.
But in the Canarinho shirt of the Seleção, the striker really is the main man. The player of the tournament at last summer’s Confederations Cup competition with four goals, Neymar’s Brazil destroyed world champions Spain in the final.
The talk in the build-up to the World Cup on home soil has been about pressure, and whether the slender shoulders of the 22 year-old can cope. We’ve already seen the level of expectations of the crowd who booed a somewhat stagnant national side for drawing with Serbia 0-0 at half-time in their last warm-up game.
No one expected Brazil to perform as they did at last year’s Confederations Cup, not least the Seleção fans themselves. But they obliterated Spain in the final and ever since they’ve become favourites to land the World Cup for a sixth time. Paradoxically, liberated from the burden placed on him at club level, Neymar may find freedom in the close fraternity of his Brazil colleagues and play with the abandon we saw last summer when he was the star of the tournament.
As the team bus carries him to Brazil’s opener with Croatia and a date with destiny, Neymar will gaze at himself looking back from countless billboards on route to the Arena Corinthians. For others, the fame might have gone to their heads. For now, Neymar is trying to keep his so all around can lose theirs should he lead his country to the greatest ego-boost of all.