He’s the darling of the Brazilian national team and was the poster-boy for a country in need of a post-World Cup good news story. Prior to the FIFA carnival in his homeland, in Europe at least, they questioned if Neymar deserved the hype after a difficult first year at Barcelona, but stepping out of Lionel Messi’s shadow at Camp Nou, Neymar could yet live up to the legend that it seems has already been created for him.
Like the crown of the one known as ‘o Rei’, the King, the number ten shirt of the Selecao weighs heavily on the shoulders of those who follow in Pele’s footsteps. Every Brazilian football team has had a star. Some failed to live up to the names of yesteryear, others such as Zico, Rivelinho, and Ronaldinho became icons. Neymar’s face is everywhere in Brazil from milk cartons to ads for flat-screen TVs but his quiet demeanour, humble words when unveiled at the Nou Camp, and generosity to supporters at Brazil’s training sessions were at odds with the impression of him before he arrived in Europe.
Viral videos of outrageous pieces of skill always came with the qualifier that Neymar was playing in a far inferior league, in the Campeanato Brasileiro. “This very same league has generated some of the most famous legends in football”, says Elie Sarkis of @BrazilStats. “Today Brazil is the country with the most players participating in the Champions League behind Spain. The majority of these started their football in the Brazilian league. People thought that Neymar would flop in Europe for the sole reason that he comes from this league, which is an absurd way of thinking, considering the talents generated here both recently, as well as throughout history”.
At just 19, Neymar was named South American Footballer of the Year, the same year he became a father to baby boy David Lucca. 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.
There were weaknesses, however. The histrionics, the diving, unfortunately can be found in Neymar. It is one of the real flaws in his game and existed since he played in São Paulo. But whereas Cristiano Ronaldo can flex his bare torso in an extreme exercise of posturing as he did in the 2014 Champions League final, Neymar dances in celebration with his teammates.
Devastated by the injury that cut short his World Cup, he has since begun to produce the type of performances that dazzled Brazilian crowds. “In the 2014/15 season, Neymar’s stats were even better than his league numbers in Brazil’s Série A,” adds Sarkis.
As Barcelona romped to the treble of La Liga, Champions League, and Copa Del Rey, Neymar scored 22 league goals, contributed 7 assists, and added a further ten strikes in the European Cup. The Brazilian was shortlisted in the final three for the Ballon D’Or which went to teammate Leo Messi for a fifth time. This season, in 18 league games, he’s scored 16 times with 9 assists.
“He is enjoying his best spell as a footballer. As long as he remains injury free he will only get better. He is a typical Brazilian, famous for expressing his belief in God on the pitch and playing for joy. Neymar represents Brazilian football as both a player and as a person.”
A version of this article first appeared in Póg Mo Goal magazine issue 2.