Soccer may be a team sport but when the World Cup kicks off today with the opening game between Brazil and Croatia all Brazilian eyes will be on one man, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. The 22-year-old Brazilian carries the weight of expectation of 200 million home fans to whom anything less than victory in the tournament will be a crushing disappointment.
Neymar - he is known only by his first name - is hailed as the best Brazilian soccer player to have emerged in the last decade and his dazzling skills are considered indispensible to Brazil’s chances to bag the World Cup for a record sixth time. “This is the first time in the history of Brazilian football that the team’s attack is dependent on just one player,” soccer legend Pelé told the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.
“If Neymar isn’t playing well, Brazil might play well but they won’t win,” says Rai Souza Vieira de Oliveira, a former Brazil captain. “Neymar’s performances will be the deciding factor.”
That’s a lot of responsibility - and pressure - for one young man to bear, but Neymar appears unfazed. “I’m going to play the World Cup, in my own country. I can’t see that as pressure. It has to give me pride and happiness to take onto the pitch,” he told Red Bulletin magazine this week.
Brazil’s number 10 actually seems to thrive on being the center of attention. As a teenage player for the Brazilian club Santos, he stood out not just for his spectacular dribbles and goals but because he wore his hair in a large mohican with bleached blonde highlights. He conveys the image of a mischievous, carefree scamp, a cheeky but charming joker.
Nor is he shy about capitalizing on his role as Brazil's great soccer hope. His face stares at you almost everywhere you go in Brazil. He advertises more than a dozen products – including soda, a bank, a car manufacturer, batteries, sunglasses, a perfume, a smartphone app, phones, ice cream and sports gear. This month he is also on the cover of Brazilian Vogue in a joint photo-shoot with supermodel Gisele Bündchen. His detractors call this “Neymarketing”.
Neymar was just 11 when he joined the youth divisions of Santos. Already tipped as a future star, aged 13 he travelled to Spain for a trial with Real Madrid, the richest soccer team in the world, but turned them down so he could stay at home.
He played his first professional game aged 17 and within a year was feted as the best player in Brazil. He was so thin that his coach described him having a physique of a butterfly, but even so was able to dribble past defenders and score stunning goals. He had the improvisation, exhibitionism and playfulness of the great players of the past.
Brazilians see Neymar as a savior. “Neymar’s style of play, both aesthetically generous and ruthlessly efficient, has recovered like no other the art at the core of genuine Brazilian football,” writes Paulo Vinicius Coelho in his biography of Neymar. “We had begun to doubt our capacity to produce players who can truly honour this rich tradition. We even began to fear for our footballing identity.”
Neymar's ability to remind Brazilians of their greatest, most stylish players and teams has made him outlandishly popular. Once his security guards had to lock him in an airport toilet to protect him from fans, the so-called Neymarzetes. He fuels the popularity through his use of social media, keeping 5.4 million Instagram followers up to date with his wardrobe, hairstyles and tattoos. “Some might think it’s tacky, but Neymar’s style is authentic. He is always inventing new ways to present himself and stand out,” Fabiana Moritz, fashion editor of Brazilian Playboy, told the Estado de S. Paulo.
When he was 18, Neymar’s performances in the Brazilian league attracted more offers from the big European clubs. He chose to rebuff them a second time, making him the first great Brazilian player since the 1980s to stay in Brazil, turning him into even more of a national hero. Yet by staying in Brazil he was also limiting his career, since the top players all play in Europe. Finally, after four seasons in Brazil, last year he transferred to Barcelona.
Shortly before he arrived in Europe, he was the heart of the Brazil team that won the 2013 Confederations Cup, winning the Golden Ball for best player. But in his first season in Spain he has been overshadowed by others: his teammate the Argentinian Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo, the current FIFA world player of the year, at Real Madrid.
Neymar’s job now is to prove that he’s the real deal on the biggest stage of all. A nation’s happiness depends on it.
Bellos is the author of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life