Inside the Unstoppable Greatness of Neymar

If you don't even think he MIGHT be the greatest of all time, you need a new GOAT debate. And if you don't believe the hype, you gotta go to Brazil. Part 3 of Larger Than Life, a B/R Football celebration of World Cup superstars like you've never seen them before...this gigantic mural included ☝️



June 7, 2018

I once heard someone say that if an artist were asked to create the best player in the world, they would paint Lionel Messi. And that if an engineer were told to construct the best player in the world, they would build Cristiano Ronaldo. If this is true, then Neymar, I think, would be the result from a computer scientist’s coding into existence a player who seems more from the realm of a FIFA video game than from real life.

With the ball at his feet, there are few athletes in the world more exciting than the Brazilian. There is an otherworldly elegance in his relationship to the game, one that causes you to hold your breath as Neymar builds speed toward the goal, then compels you to stand up—whether you’re watching at home, in person or at a bar with your friend gracelessly spilling beer on you—as Neymar pulls his leg back to shoot. And then you just stare, mouth agape, as you watch the ball thunder into the back of the net. Neymar has been eliciting this sort of response for more than a decade now, and he is only 26.

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He is the most expensive player of all time, his personal and professional life are subject to unceasing scrutiny, and he carries the weight of his sport’s most decorated nation on his shoulders as it approaches the World Cup once more. Everyone knows this, and no one more than Neymar himself. Brazilians speak of the Paris Saint-Germain star with a reverence typically reserved for legends of the game, those whose careers have long since ended and whose talent is the stuff of folklore. Neymar is part of a long lineage of Brazilian players who have been considered among the best in the world, but he is, in so many respects, a player unlike any who has come before him.

But there is hype, along with the superlative debates over where Neymar sits among the greatest in the game, and then there is evolution. There is one of the most gifted players in the world, right there in front of you—on TV, on the pitch, dribbling through the dreams of millions of Brazilians—and the challenge that faces him. Which is to say that with each season, with each goal, with each dazzling display, Neymar is building a standing in the game that only amplifies the expectations placed upon him and illuminates the ways he has changed to meet them.

Indeed, to hear it from his countrymen, the boy from outside Sao Paulo has spent his career shifting, switching and embracing expectation—and there is no sign that the World Cup will be any different.

“He represents all Brazilians because he is always happy, playing football—he is one of us.”

—Gabriel Barbosa on Neymar

“It’s incredible how he has evolved,” Gabriel Barbosa, the 21-year-old star at Neymar’s boyhood club, Santos FC, tells me. “Every time we see him play, he’s done something new; he’s always changing, always evolving.”

When I ask him what makes Neymar a hero to so many here in Brazil, such an inarguably elastic icon to so many the world over, he looks into the distance, pondering briefly, and smiles. “He is like us,” Gabriel, yet another teen sensation who left to play in Europe before returning to his home country, says of his national team comrade. “He represents all Brazilians because he is always happy, playing football—he is one of us.”

When he was 18 years old, Neymar made the impulsive decision to change his hairstyle from a simple, conservative look to what resembled a burgeoning mohawk. The haircut was seen as immature by some fans and commentators, but after he scored two goals in the next game, and 43 goals that season, it didn’t take long for confoundment around the teenager’s new hairstyle to evolve into a national obsession. As Neymar’s father said at the time, “In Brazil, only the president doesn’t have a mohawk.”

Over the course of what is already an almost decadelong professional career, Neymar has changed his hairstyle from a longer, blonde-tipped mohawk the year Santos won the Copa Libertadores in 2011, to the shaved sides and swoosh of black hair falling over his eyes when he moved to Barcelona in 2013, to the intermingling black and golden curls he carried with him to Paris this time last year and still rocks today.

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Walking along the beaches of Santos, the municipality outside Sao Paulo where Neymar da Silva Santos Junior came of age as a young player, I see boys playing football in the sand, with hairstyles emulating their hero’s latest look. Neymar was not born in Santos, a city where bikes are ubiquitous and where the ocean water glistens on the edge of the sand, but the residents still claim him as their son. He is spoken of in ways that reflect both a distant admiration and an intimate familiarity. His smile makes him feel like a neighbor, his talent like he belongs to another planet.

Across the street from the training ground of Santos FC, his childhood friend and barber, Cosme Salles, is holding court. Over the years, Salles has cut the hair of many boys who want their hair to resemble Neymar’s, no matter the style he is sporting at the moment. It’s not only the hair that is constantly shifting, the barber says, but also the man, in a way that is appropriately aligned with the changes that come alongside having a family, leaving your home and becoming to the world more hero than human. “Of course he changed. For example, he’s a father, he has a son now. You have to change.” But to Neymar’s barber, none of those changes has been negative: “In his heart,” Neymar is the same as he has always been. He laughs, he jokes, and he takes care of his family and friends—even if, as Salles puts it, “He exists at the same level of Messi and Ronaldo.”

Growing up, Neymar played in the streets, as so many Brazilian children have done and continue to do. And as millions of children do across Brazil and the world, he also played futsal—five-a-side soccer on a small indoor gymnasium court—before he ever spent time on a grass field.

And to watch highlights of Neymar playing futsal as a child in seaside Praia Grande is to search for superlatives that simply may not exist. The boy, dimpled and wearing a billowing shirt that drapes over his delicately built body, moves with both an assuredness and fluidity that make little sense for someone so young. It is not difficult to see the parallels to how he plays today and how the accelerated tempo of the indoor game translated into the speed at which he plays on the larger field.

“In futsal, the field is smaller, so players touch the ball more, and they become more enthusiastic about the game,” says Alcides Magri Junior, sitting in his apartment in the beach town of Guaruja. “The kids have to think more quickly during the game because it’s so fast, and this has a positive impact on their development.”

Magri Junior became Neymar’s early futsal coach when Neymar’s father, Neymar Sr., moved the family from Mogi das Cruzes, a city east of Sao Paulo, where the elder Neymar played professional soccer, back to his hometown of Sao Vicente. The coach’s friend had seen Neymar play in a local gym when the boy was just 10 years old, and when he brought Neymar to the coach, he immediately had him join his futsal team. Now Magri Junior, sitting with his legs crossed and fingers interlocked on his thighs, smiles often when recalling the gifts of a young Neymar. “Outside of the field, he was just like the other children, but on the field, everyone could see he was different.”

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As word of the young maestro’s talent spread, so did intrigue over the next step of his development. When Neymar was 12, Antonio Lima dos Santos, known simply as Lima across Brazil, was told he needed to watch the special boy from Sao Vicente. Lima did go watch Neymar, and he very much liked what he saw. He then worked with Zito, another Brazilian legend and director of Santos’ youth teams, and arranged for Neymar to join the club. The problem was Santos didn’t have a category for boys Neymar’s age. He was 13, and the youngest age group Santos had was for 15-year-olds. “We created an entirely new category so Neymar could play,” Lima tells me.

At age 14, Neymar flew to visit Real Madrid, sending Santos into a panic that they might lose their young star. The trip, according to Real Madrid, was simply a visit, as Neymar was too young to sign a professional European deal. He had not even signed a professional contract with Santos, though the team moved to change that as soon as Neymar returned home.

What you have to understand about football in Brazil is that players exist under a different sort of scrutiny—the sort of constant loyalty test LeBron James would not see in seven Clevelands—than we see in any other sport, anywhere. I see it as soon as I step outside the city of Sao Paulo and into the nearby Estadio Urbano Caldeira, the home of Santos FC and a place that—with a capacity of approximately 16,000—creates an intimacy such that players are keenly aware of how fans feel at every moment. When things are going well, the stadium reverberates as supporters in the top section of the stands—home to the cheapest tickets, where there are no chairs—sing and dance in unison, celebrating Santos and urging their team to carry on. When things are not going well, the air becomes thick with contempt, and it sits over the stadium like a cumulonimbus cloud full of rain, ready to burst.

I imagine a young Neymar, just 17 years old when he made his debut for Santos’ first team, playing under these conditions, experiencing acutely the capriciousness emanating from the crowd. What makes Neymar so different than other talented players who came before him, and will come after him, is that he not only persevered under that pressure but thrived. “Since the first time I saw him play I knew he was special,” says Julio Cesar Provenca, a longtime Santos fan sitting nervously on the edge of his seat as his team comes closer to leveling in May’s Copa do Brasil against Luverdense.

Neymar scored an impressive 14 goals in his first year. At 18 years old, he indisputably became one of the most exciting young players in the world, scoring 43 goals in just 63 games. The following year, he was named South American Footballer of the Year and led Santos to their first continental title since 1963, when another young Brazilian, named Pele, was the face of the team. “When [Neymar] played here,” says Daniel Nobrega, a fan watching the game alongside three of his friends in the nowhere-near-capacity arena, “the stadium would be filled like a concert. There were so many people.”

But Neymar’s move to Europe was inevitable. He knew that. The people in the stands of the Estadio Urbano Caldeira knew that, and understood it: Santos had groomed many of the young Brazilian talents who would become both global superstars and fulcrums of the national team. Some fans, however, were not as forgiving. Fernando Augusto Gias Barbosa, a 37-year-old with a black baseball cap and dark stubble running along his cheeks, is watching the game with his eight-year-old son, both of them adorned in the gleaming black-and-white striped kit of Santos. “Neymar is done to me,” he says. We start talking about Neymar’s secret agreement with Barcelona in November 2011—when he was only 19 years old, without informing Santos, he reportedly pledged to join Barca three years later—and the father shakes his head at the memory. Then he looks me in the eyes with the level of seriousness you find in football-obsessed Brazil: “Neymar is the past,” he says, “but Santos is forever.”

Pele himself—the Brazilian soccer legend, the only player in history to win three World Cups—has already declared that Neymar sits alone at the top of the current footballing hierarchy, above Messi, above Cristiano Ronaldo: “...for me, technically, he is already the best player in the world. I’m absolutely sure of that.”

But it is one thing to ask people to compare Neymar to his contemporaries, and it is another to ask where he stands in history. Asking Brazilians to compare Pele and Neymar, for example, is to be consistently presented with a series of heavy exhalations, shrugged shoulders and looks into the distance as people gesticulate ambivalently in response to a question that has no real answer. It is not so different than a conversation in the United States regarding whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. In both instances, one encounters what have become familiar sport-specific maxims: They’re from two different eras. The game has changed. You’re comparing apples to oranges. It’s too soon to tell.

And in many ways these fans are correct. You cannot necessarily compare the way LeBron is able to thrust himself through a barricade of defenders, with equal parts brawn and elegance, to the way Jordan was able to contort his body in midair, inexplicably, to make what had a half-second before seemed an impossible shot. Similarly, you can’t compare the way Neymar consistently eludes defenders, with nothing more than the dip of a shoulder or a spontaneous flick of his foot, to the way Pele could seamlessly change direction—once, twice, three times, in implausible succession—with the ball still tethered to his feet. Pele is considered by many to be the greatest player of the 20th century. Neymar is still only 26. It is difficult to compare a legacy that has spent 40 years cementing itself while another is perhaps little more than halfway to being formed.

Asking Brazilians to compare Neymar and Pele is not unlike the LeBron vs. Jordan debate in the United States: potential and legacy are not so much competing as they are in conversation.

The museum in Santos, an expansive room beneath the team’s stadium, is in many ways a physical testament to the space that remains between the two Brazilian legends. The museum offers a history of the club’s success, with a glittering trophy case holding more than 70 awards. To its left is a tribute to Neymar. More specifically, it is a tall glass encasement that serves as an homage to what is widely considered the single greatest goal of Neymar’s career—and one of the best goals in the 106-year history of Santos FC.

With his team up 2-0 against rival Flamengo on a Wednesday evening in July 2011, Neymar collected the ball about 20 yards inside the opposing half on the far side of the field. With his right foot he pulled the ball under his body and dragged it behind his left leg; with his left, he pushed the ball ahead of him, splitting two defenders and moving into open space. The three-touch sequence happened so quickly that you have to watch in slow motion to understand what what you’ve seen.

Running at full speed, Neymar passed the ball to a teammate, received it back and burst ahead toward the goal. With a Flamengo defender on his back and another in front of him, Neymar simultaneously rolled the ball across his body with the underside of his right foot, and with his left foot dinked the ball to the right of the last defender as he ran around his left side. With two other Flamengo defenders converging upon Neymar from both sides and the goalkeeper racing toward him, he used the outside of his right foot to lift the ball by the keeper and into the net. The Brazilian commentator’s howling reaction summed up the collective sentiment, as so many of the best commentators do: Sensacional! Fantastico! Espetacular un goal de Neymar!

The goal won the 2011 FIFA Puskas Award, given to the best goal in the world that year. Here atop the shrine Neymar’s boyhood club built for him, the golazo plays on loop on a small television screen—every minute a reminder of his singular genius. Below sits the pair of cleats Neymar wore when he scored the goal, a profile of his face molded into a block of stone and photos of Neymar both in the moments after he scored the goal and after he received the award.

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Getty Images/Ricardo Nogueira

But in the museum, Pele’s face—his likeness, photos, videos—is featured with conspicuous prominence. Pele scored an unparalleled 1,283 goals (in 1,363 games) over the course of 19 seasons from 1956 to 1977. It is a record unmatched anywhere in the world. So it is tempting to take this all in and come to the easy conclusion that while Neymar may be the crown prince, Pele is still king. But as you spend more time in the museum, and more time speaking to fans, it becomes clear that Pele’s legacy and Neymar’s potential are not so much competing as they are in conversation. They are both part of a tradition, both of Santos and Brazil, that invites us to celebrate their respective gifts rather than pit them against one another.

By any traditional metric, Neymar’s first season with Paris Saint-Germain went very well. He combined for 28 goals and 16 assists in just 30 games, and the team won all three domestic trophies. He was even named the French league’s Player of the Year despite ending his season when he cracked a bone in his little toe in February, before PSG were eliminated from the Champions League in March.

But Neymar has also shifted the sport’s entire modern economic landscape—the entire tradition of expectation in European football—with the €224 million ($263 million) deal he reportedly signed last year with PSG, a club that will invest some €511 million ($600 million) in the Brazilian. It is an astronomical price tag that has inflated the market in the short term and will have long-term impacts we won’t fully know for some time. And yet, less than a year after that deal, transfer talk has been swirling again about whether Neymar will stay in Paris beyond this summer, with Real Madrid said to be the top suitor for the man they missed out on 12 years ago.

Ever-engaged in the process of self-evolution, Neymar has continuously brushed aside speculation about his future and has said that, right now, he is only worried about the World Cup. “My focus is Brazil,” he told reporters in Rio the other day. “People are talking nonsense” about the transfer chatter, he insists.

Jesse Alexander

Neymar da Silva Santos Junior was 10 years old during the 2002 World Cup, the last World Cup victory for the Brazil men’s national team. “I watched the whole tournament,” he has said, “and remember everything.” The 2002 Brazilian team was world-class, with four players—Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka—who had won or who would go on to win the Ballon d’Or, all on the same team. Now, 16 years later, Neymar exists among a pantheon of players who have become the face of football’s most celebrated nation, and who has been tasked with leading the team on its quest for international glory.

Neymar’s time with the national team has been a mixed bag for both him and Brazilian fans. He has scored 54 goals in 84 games and led the Selecao to its first-ever gold medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics. But in the last World Cup, the competition that matters far more than any other, Neymar was injured in a quarterfinal match against Colombia. In the semifinal against Germany, without Neymar, Brazil experienced their greatest-ever humiliation, losing 7-1 to the eventual champions. The entire nation mourned as Brazil’s national team was eviscerated—Germany scored five goals in the first 30 minutes—and the team’s coach at the time, Luiz Felipe Scolari, called it “the worst day of my life.”

Neymar carries the memory of that Germany defeat with him just as his country does, and as he is preparing for Russia, he knows that only winning the tournament will be enough to make amends for the devastation his team experienced four years ago. But for Neymar, there is something else at stake. It is the opportunity to distinguish himself among his contemporary rivals for the footballing throne and to demonstrate to the world that there is no expectation he cannot meet, no metric of success he cannot transcend. The World Cup is not a prerequisite for greatness, but it is central to our consideration. If Neymar can lead Brazil to World Cup triumph this summer, he will have done something neither Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo have done, and he will have done it with much of the world already presuming he can. He will have done everything that has been asked of him, and soon, if all goes according to Neymar’s plan, instead of chasing others for the sport’s crown, he will only be chasing himself.

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Clint Smith, a contributor to B/R Mag, is a writer, teacher and doctoral candidate at Harvard University. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review and The New Republic. His debut collection of poems, Counting Descent, won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. Follow him on Twitter: @ClintSmithIII

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