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Neymar - Part 1: The Skinny Kid Who Grew To Greatness From The Streets To FC Barcelona

Explosive and extraordinary, Neymar’s skills honed in the streets and indoor futsal pitches, then at Portuguesa Santista and Santos, all in amidst the roller-coaster journey of life, are now making him the epitome of consistency for Brazil as well as Barcelona.

Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

Two schoolkids wait for their turn before entering the Estadio Municipal Paulo Machado de Carvalho‘s (better known as Pacaembu) Museu do Futebol. It's all of 3 floors tall (including the ground) and consists of an impressive 16 specific phases. It can get pretty hectic and chaotic with the many energetic schoolkids. At the entrance, (and the only phase in the ground floor) is the waiting room of Brazilian football, where pennants, flags, button games, posters and countless gadgets are present, therefore personifying Brazil. A feast for the eyes. Yet this is only the beginning and some schoolkids will miss it in favour of hurriedly moving up to the first floor and being greeted by their idol, Pelé, in three different languages (English, Portuguese and Spanish). The visitors then go from room-to-room, in the process seeing images of a ball, kicking balls and genuinely having fun.

Though the whole experience is fantastic, the highlight to most is no doubt phase number four, "the Baroque Angels" flying in the dark above. It consists of life-sized models of Brazilian football legends dribbling, shimmying and shooting in the air. The credit to the idea goes to Luca Caioli as well as further research, including the Pacaembu Museu do Futebol official website. A plaque reads: "There are 25 of them, but there could easily be 50 or 100 because they were the founders of football, an art form which is played in Brazil. Gods or heroes, idols of various generations who can be seen as angels whose wings or rather feet take us to place where creativity, poetry and magic is nurtured. They are the true angels of Baroque art." Angels with names such as "Pelé, Socrates, Gilmar, Carlos Alberto, Bebeto, Tostao, Garrincha, Ronaldo, Gerson, Rivelino, Didi, Vava, Romario, Ronaldinho Gaucho, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo, Taffarel, Zico, Zagallo, Falcao, Nilton Santos, Djalma Santos, Jairzinho, Julinho, Botelho and Zizinho."

A boy called Paulo is absolutely amazed by the long-list of the Baroque Angels in the darkness, he reads them name-after-name. He hesitantly looks up at the images, turns and tells his friend: "How come Neymar is not here?"

* * *

"The other day, I did a photo shoot for an ad campaign. When we finished, I asked for the ball we used. I went to the elevators doing freestyle ‘kick ups'. I continued for the whole trip down. At the lobby, a couple of kids asked for autographs. After a few pictures I continued to play with the ball all the way to my car. I'll tell you, I can't live without the ball." - Neymar Jr

Neymar Jr was born on the 5th of February 1992 in Mogi das Cruzes, Brazil, with his parents only finding out that he was a boy when he came into the world, they couldn't afford an ultrasound. They weren't sure on what to name the baby and eventually settled on Neymar Jr, with his family nickname being "Juninho." The family was struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table. Mogi is a place with 40,000 inhabitants that has been doubled in the last 15 years. It's a place with character that at least has work available. Initially, Neymar Jr, as well as the rest of his family, remained in Mogi, but after a few years, when it became evident that his father's career was ending, it became equally clear that a change was needed.  Neymar Sr, by his own admission, fresh off a failed football career, was forced to move his wife, Nadine, son and daughter, Rafaela, to his parents' house in Sao Vicente, a seaside town in Sao Paolo state.

Neymar Sr recalls the difficult times. There was a time when they had no money to pay the electricity bill and were therefore cut off. He reminisces to the good old days. Juninho and Rafaela were kids and would love being in the dark with lit candles. "What we had in that house with no electricity was priceless: true love. That's how you really build a home, a life. With love. Even without money, our family was united and happy," Neymar Sr writes in a brilliant autobiography titled: "Neymar: My Story - Conversations with my father."

To say that they had it tough is an understatement. "We weren't starting at zero - we were starting at minus-five," said Neymar Sr. It wasn't a slum or a favela, (although Neymar Sr grew up in one) but it was an extremely modest home with the need to also look after his parents. Neymar Sr acknowledges that he could have taken the easy option - to merely sit back and live with few aspirations. To live as if they had never lived and watched year-after-year pass them without much to show for it. "We could have done that," he said.

Neymar Sr and his family had no such plans. Instead, they went for the jugular. Neymar Sr started working at least three jobs simultaneously. He was a car mechanic, a salesperson and a transporter. Incredible. It may sound almost mythical but working multiple jobs has become an increasingly common practice in Brazil. His wife also worked, namely as a cook at a child-care centre.

Neymar was always with the ball. Nadine remembers that he always used to sleep with a ball and that he had over 50 balls in his room. "A ball is like the most jealous woman in the world. If you do not treat her well, she will not love you and she can even hurt you. I love her to bits," said Neymar affectionately.

"I asked a friend, "Who is that boy?" I looked at the father: he was well built and had good ball control. I looked at the mother, who was attending the match: she was tall and thin. I immediately began to think about the genetics of Neymar Jr's parents: they were two fine biological specimens. This made me wonder how the little one would play football." - Betinho

The early morning and late nights lasted for about 4 years, until Neymar Jr turned 7. A recruiter (Betinho, someone Neymar would get to know very well later on) for a local and humble social club, Tumiaru, came to see him and eventually allowed Neymar to join for a fee. Neymar Sr didn't really see much of his son playing football due to work commitments, but he had heard the talk. Neymar's potential was clear for all to see even at such an early age, yet potential is one thing and becoming a fully-fledged superstar is another.

No one would have guessed that he would become what he is today. Well, possibly with the exception of his first coach Betinho at Tumiaru (who would later follow Neymar Jr to Santos, also known as Peixe, due to Neymar Sr's top-notch negotiation skills), who told Luca Caioli about a very young Neymar in a testimony gathered by the Italian biographer Luca Caioli in his excellent book titled "Neymar, the Making of the World's Greatest New Number 10." He said, "Neymar was different: he was a very intelligent player. He was always one step ahead. He was the first to arrive at training and the last to leave the pitch. I cast my mind to Robinho at the same age and Neymar seemed more talented." He therefore said to his father: "You have a son who can be one of the greatest footballers. He will be at least as good as Robinho."

Just like with many other footballers, including his hero and role model, Pelé, Neymar started playing football in the streets and indoor futsal pitches. The street was uneven and on a slope, the teams would therefore switch sides every 3 goals to make it fair. And futsal requires quicker thinking, movement and reflexes. It's very different to eleven-a-side, but Neymar was a bundle of talent right from the start. As his former futsal coach at Gremetal, Alcides Magri remembers, "My role was to give him freedom, not block his talent and try to improve his technical abilities. I didn't need to teach him how to dribble..." Even at the tender age of 5, he used to play with boys who were older than he was. "I just wanted to play," said Neymar.

An interview was conducted with Neymar Jr in 2003, it was intended to be about the ‘next Robinho', to be part of a documentary on how he in turn could become the ‘next Pelé'. Of course, it didn't happen, Robinho just didn't perform in the World Cup 2006 and the English documentary wasn't made. But the interview is nevertheless fascinating. One of the first questions he was asked is, "what do you want to do if you make it as a professional footballer and earn lots of money?" The reply was a wonderful embodiment of Neymar. Indeed, Neymar in a microcosm. "Help my family," is his immediate response.

He later on outlined his dream to go to Real Madrid or Barcelona and follow in the footsteps of Brazilian legends. Robinho, one of Neymar's biggest idols, advised him to go to Barcelona. "Not because I was against Madrid, but at Madrid the style is different: it is every man for himself," Robinho memorably uttered. Neymar was an ambitious young man right from the start.

"I'm extremely lucky that I have more than a father; I have by my side, more than anything else, my best friend. He is sometimes harsh with me, but everything he does, he does for me, for us. For our family." - Neymar Jr

At the age of ten, Neymar was offered a place at Portuguesa Santista. Again, going back to Neymar Sr, he could have accepted the place and took the money that came with it. Indeed, he could easily have put his feet up and uttered the proverbial: "Job well done." Yet he didn't. He knew that he wanted to take his children to the next level. He wasn't satisfied. It wasn't quite an obsession but it wasn't the regret of his football past either. It's that innate passion, desire and determination to want more. Both on a parental level and as a ‘friend'. It is this friendship which would later lead Neymar Jr onto greatness.

A short stay in the club helped Neymar and Rafaela secure scholarships to one of the most prestigious schools in Santos. In contrast to La Masia and the vast majority of the top European football youth academies, education is not of vital importance in most Brazilian academies, and just Brazil in general. In the 1990's an astonishing one in five Brazilians over the age of 15 were illiterate and studies carried out by the Brazilian Football Confederation showed that the bulk of professional footballers in Brazil left without a decent education. Much more money needs to be invested in Brazil's health and education, that there is no doubt. Also striking is the fact that footballers in Brazil more or less earned less than €1000 a month. This is all completely unacceptable, especially since Brazil is part of the BRICS acronym, an association of five major emerging national economies. Yet at least things are now slowly improving.

Neymar Sr therefore knew that his son had to have a back-up just in case he wouldn't make it in football, in hindsight needlessly, of course (but hindsight is 20:20). Yet education is of utmost important and a learning process. It is for this reason that both him and his sister won scholarships and went to a private school for a while. The coordinator of the school, Maria Antonia described him as a model student and said that he was mad about football, even at such an early age, as per Caioli. "He was always ready to play with his classmates. At break time, students were not allowed to play football but he always found a way around it. He would go to the head-master and beg him to lend him a football so he could take some shots or practice kick ups," she said. His desire to be with the football has always been unreal.

"Just 6 days into our trip to Europe, my son and I couldn't take anymore. Everything just felt different for us. I've had many struggles in my life. I'm an adult, a grown man, but my son was just a kid and I could sense that he felt overwhelmed by it all. Sometime being pushed like that can be hugely beneficial, but sometimes it can be equally detrimental." - Neymar Sr

Clubs from Brazil as well as abroad were going all-out for Neymar. His talents were in abundance and it drew more money than the family had ever seen. And this is when Neymar Sr really stepped up. Firstly, he turned down a lucrative offer from Real Madrid when Neymar was 13, instead wanting to gamble on Santos' long-established and widely recognised track record for developing young players. Madrid's proposed deal was a similar one to the Messi deal that was made with Barcelona when he was a kid. "He would grow up in Spain as a man and as an athlete," and the financials were extraordinarily for his age, according to Neymar Sr.

It must be said that it was an extremely close shave because Neymar was there for three weeks, had passed all the tests and Madrid were on the verge of making the move official. The Madrid Infantil A coach, Jesus Gutierrez, was star-struck by his abilities. "He was a lot better than the other players at that stage." And as Caioli writes, "These weren't your average footballers: there was Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid), Pablo Sarabia (Getafe), Alex Fernandez (Espanyol) and Fran Sol (Real Oviedo)."

Yet Neymar was homesick and just wasn't enjoying Madrid. "The air was getting heavier." "He missed everything." It was too early. "I didn't care we were abdicating from so much money. All I wanted was for him to continue to play with joy. And there was no joy on those days. No money could ever change that," writes Neymar Sr.

Secondly, he protected his son by setting limits on how much he could spend each month as well as making it a rule that treats can only be gained through performances on the pitch. For example, Neymar won his first car by winning a tournament and even his earrings were gained through a bet with his father. Parenting done right. It's a cliché but Neymar wouldn't be a fraction of what he is now "without the care, attention, and work of his father," as Brazilian journalist Fernando Duarte put it and Antonio Lima dos Santos, a former team-mate of Pelé and one of Neymar's former coaches, confirmed it.

"My dad is the best critic I have. The best and the harshest." - Neymar Jr

Neymar Jr describes his father as a best friend, more than any manager, agent or adviser. As a mentor not only in football, but also in life. It's evident that he means everything to him. He states in his autobiography that whenever he's in a sticky situation (both on the pitch and off it), he thinks: "What would my father do in a situation like this?"

His father always taught him to learn from more experienced people. This is why he always keeps an eye on Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as well as trying to learn from the likes of Ronaldo, Robinho, Romario and Rivaldo.

Further to this, Neymar Jr knows that he is regarded as a role model by millions of children worldwide. He acknowledges that he needs to be responsible, but that it's easy when he loves what he does. He loves to be authentic and make bold choices. As he put it: "My hair might change from time to time, but my feet are firmly on the ground. This is me."

And Neymar Jr knows how to deal with criticism. Unsurprisingly, this again was learnt from his father. A typical conversation after Neymar gets home from a football match goes: "What's up, Dad?" "Son, you made a mistake there, and also there! But you can improve from it." As Neymar Jr acknowledges, constructive criticism can make a real difference whilst empty criticism is futile. His father is the best critic he has.

The Brazilian prodigy is eternally grateful for the sense of direction he got from his father and Betinho when growing up as a kid. He writes: "How many talents out there are wasted because of a lack of direction?"

Neymar Sr recalls how terrified he first was of holding his fragile baby son. "In the beginning, I needed someone to help me hold him." He continues: "Of course, after a while, I learned how to take good care of him." The little moments in life.

"I can only remember praying to God to take me instead of my son. If I had lost him, it would have been unbearable. Incomparable to the pain I felt in the middle of that smashed car." - Neymar Sr

It could all have ended so ugly and differently. Neymar Sr narrates the day he feared his son had died in a car crash. It was over in a blur and Neymar Sr thought his four-month old boy had been thrown out of the car and killed by the impact. "We were almost certain we had lost our son. In the middle of the despair and with the pain in my pelvis, I can only remember praying to God to take me instead of my son," writes Neymar Sr. Thankfully, they found him and he made it, with only a small cut to the head and accompanying blood from a flying shard of broken glass to show for it.

The after-effects of the car crash affected Neymar Sr though. He was suspended in the air with a special belt and spent a further eight months without holding "Juninho." "I would cry myself to sleep," he writes. He continued by adding some perspective, "It's better to suffer yourself than to see your children suffering."

"I used to pick up the ball, set up the furniture and go around dribbling anything that popped in front of me. I felt complete with the ball at my feet; there is no other way to describe it." - Neymar Jr

Neymar used to train in all sorts of places - just about anywhere you can think of.  He started playing futsal very early on. Many experts believe that it really helps to develop a young person's dribbling and passing. Training is incredibly important, yet as Neymar attests, improvisation is arguably just as crucial.  "It's only in the heat of the game that you'll discover whether it works or not," according to Neymar. A lot of the things that he learnt on the indoor pitch were learnt through instinct.

He used to love kicking the ball around in his grandparents' house. The whole family slept on one mattress in a very small room. Neymar's cousin and sister (Jennifer and Rafaela) were used as goalposts whilst playing indoors and his other cousins (Lorrayne and Rayssa) were opponents "or training dummies, with respect", as Neymar put it. He recalls that they stood as obstacles, like cones, and even wore football shirts to make it look real. "I would spend hours dribbling around them, learning to control the ball in that tight environment, always just me against them." He continues: "Hours and hours and hours were spent like that." This is how he learnt how to get his outstanding balance and control.

Neymar narrates how a few years later, when his father built a small house in Praia Grande, he used to train by kicking a very small ball against the wall first with his right foot, then left, then practicing chest control and lastly using his head. He acknowledges that it was hard work, but that he got better and better on a daily basis.

Neymar also developed at the beach through his father's guidance, as well as at a small football pitch at his home that his father built for him. He reminisces how his neighbour's door and mother's vases suffered!  Despite how Neymar was always running around the house and kicking the ball in all sorts of directions, his mother never stopped him from playing.

"She always did everything for us. Not only in dealing with me at home, but also taking me to training and games when my dad couldn't, because he was working so hard in those days," writes Neymar. He continues by saying that without his parents, "this story would just be another boy's dream."

"Typically children are not in love with football. They are in love with the ball. They play in the living room, in the backyard, on the street, anywhere. It doesn't matter if it's a narrow space, if it may break something." - Neymar Sr

Pelé is someone Neymar has an enormous amount of respect for. And the feeling is clearly mutual with Pelé saying that his fellow countryman has the potential to one day be bigger and better than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Antonio Lima, a man who knows both men better than anyone else, joined in on the Pelé-Neymar debate.

"Neymar has something that even Pelé doesn't," Lima says. "The speed of his feet and the way he can move the ball." Yet he stayed well clear of having a definite conclusion on it. "No, no. You can't compare any player with Pelé," he says. "Because you will never find another one like Pelé."

Many are already aware of Neymar's extraordinary natural talents, yet are unaware of the amount of hard work he has put in to be where he is today. This started from a very young age back when he used to follow his father to matches and watch him play. He learnt that he needs to be committed, determined and train hard in order to succeed. Neymar Sr used to tell him, "Keep moving, son. Never stop, move to both sides and let the opponent get tired. Don't stay in your comfort zone; don't make the opposition's life easier," as per the autobiography. The two of them used to spend hours analysing the little details.

Leo Baptistao, a former team-mate of Neymar at Portuguesa Santista and a player currently contracted to Atlético Madrid (on loan at Rayo Vallecano), remembers just how good Neymar was at such a young age, even to the extent that they used a tactic that many of us will be familiar with from our days of playing in the playground, in an interview with Caioli. "What he does now on the pitch, he was already doing at the age of ten, eleven. Let's just say that the tactics for lots of matches were just to pass the ball to Neymar and let him get on with it," he says. He also confirmed what several others have stated, that Neymar isn't a show-off. It's a misconception that sometimes seems to follow players with incredible flair.

When Lima and Neymar first met, Neymar was a 13-year-old playing five-a-side for Santos on a wage of £120 a week because the under-13's didn't have an 11-a-side team. Neymar Sr was a great negotiator, even to the extent that he managed to get petrol allowance for his son's coach, Betinho, who used to drive Neymar and other kids to school. After a day full of study and training, Betinho used to tell them, "Now you boys rest, okay? Neymar's reply is absolutely genius. "Yeah right..." He continues in his autobiography, "We would wait until he was gone and then go out to play in the street, at home, wherever we could. We just loved the game so much."

"I was born a simple man, and I will die the same way." - Neymar Jr

From reading the mainstream press and media, a person can't help but think that Neymar may be a bit extravagant. Yet that's only a shallow view that doesn't go deep beyond the surface. He knows he has responsibilities, but he often feels like a grown child, someone who loves playing football in the street, going out with friends and playing video games.

As for food? "I like the basics: A very simple Brazilian meal with rice, beans, fries and farofa. And biscuits. I love biscuits. And ice cream," writes Neymar Jr in his autobiography - He even had a refrigerator in his office just to keep some ice cream handy. He cares a lot about his appearance; Calvin Klein, Armani, you name it. But there are some things he doesn't take care of much and that include his trophies and football shirts. He continues to recall in his autobiography how he once forgot the London Olympics 2012 and the Copa America 2011 trophies in his hotel on two separate occasions. Yet these are only tangibles and can therefore be shrugged off since they aren't his main focus.

He enjoys staying indoors, playing snooker, cards and the PlayStation: His favourite games are FIFA, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. Even when he's home alone, he tends to surf the net and meet his friends online. To relax, refresh and refocus. He also loves going out with friends, amusements parks as well as listening and dancing to all kinds of music. The music really helped his football, as Betinho explained, "When I used to put samba music on, I would see him move, gyrate, dance, as he did when he had the ball at his feet."

Neymar enjoys travelling and exploring different cultures, yet he doesn't much like the long plane journeys, so he sleeps. And he's an expert at it! He loves telling jokes as well as singing and freestyle football. One of his greatest pleasures in life is cycling, he used to cycle to training back in Santos, and according to himself, he does so whenever he's back there.

It's no secret that Neymar loves tattoos. He has at least 18, with some of the highlights being "life is a joke," "fe" (faith), "everything passes" and matching "sorella" ("sister") and "fratello" ("brother") diamond tattoos with his sister. Also, ‘Ousadia e Alegria,' (which later became a song) two inspiring words which translate to "boldness and joy." - Two words which embody Neymar perfectly. Neymar is friends with the singer, Thiaguinho, and has shared the stage with him. He's not much different to your average Joe in terms of hobbies and they've remained the same since he was a small child.

There is little doubt as to what his main focus is though. And Neymar is the antithesis to some footballers who never watch the game when they are not playing. "The only thing I never turn off is my passion. I live and breathe football 24-7, either playing or watching. I like to review plays from other players so I can absorb them," he aptly writes.

Click here to read Part 2.

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