Neymar - Part 2: 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.
This is the second of a three-part series on how Neymar Jr grew to greatness from the streets to FC Barcelona. The first part, among other things, looked at Neymar's very beginnings, what family means to him, how close he was to signing for Real Madrid, that awful car-crash, where he trained as a kid, who some of this role models are and Neymar Jr - the person.
"With the right degree of intervention, you can change an entire trajectory, an entire attitude, an entire way of thought." - Neymar Sr
Neymar Sr brought his son up strictly, because that's what he believes the role of a father is. "Nobody wants to forbid anything just for the sake of it. We do it because we are doing it for the best interests of our children," he writes in the autobiography He therefore instilled strong values of modesty, discipline and professionalism. They are always speaking and communicating. He was never too soft because as he acknowledges, there is no point in that. Neymar Sr says that it's important to always give your best regardless of what it is you are doing. He recalls a quite remarkable time when he was asked to clean the women's bathroom at work, and not only did he do so, but he left the place spotless! He has tried to teach his children the very same lesson.
He reminisces one of the turning points of his son's life. Neymar once mishit a shot terribly with his left-foot and his coach, Betinho, subsequently took him aside and told him to always use his right-foot in the future. But Neymar Sr, with respect, disagreed. "Son, you should kick with the foot next to the ball, whichever it is." He continues: "Don't be afraid to use your weak foot. Use it once, twice, three times, until the weak foot is not weak anymore. Until you feel it's strong. Your strong foot also helps the strong leg." Thereafter, he spoke to Betinho who understood and started applying the same strategy with his other students.
Neymar was always eager to learn, even from an early age, that much is crystal clear. "At the same time I would make him practice all the time with his left-foot," says Lima. "I was a defender but I would show him that if an opponent comes at you from one side it is much easier if you are comfortable on the other side. He would always ask me how he could be better and I would tell him to use his left-foot." All of this combined has helped Neymar improve exponentially. In the short-term the improvements are seemingly small, yet in the long-term fundamental ones.
The result? Spectacular. That wonderful rocket of a left-footed shot for Brazil against Spain in the Confederations Cup Final 2013. It didn't happen by pure luck, instead, years and years of training and practicing with his left-foot was required. As the old saying goes, ‘you reap what you sow'. Neymar used to joke with Lima about his left foot. And Lima did the same after Neymar's thunderbolt in the final. He sent Neymar a message that read: "Not bad for someone who did not want to shoot with their left."
Neymar Sr knows how vital it is for a young person to have a mentor. It is for this reason that he went to a Physical Education class in order to be able to learn and then teach ‘Juninho'. "As we say in Brazil, being a father is not enough, you have to participate," he quite aptly writes.
"Until my debut for Santos my father used to say that Juninho was his son. After the debut he said he had just become the father of Neymar Jr." - Neymar Jr
Even though he didn't score on his debut, it was a surreal and special moment. Caioli recalls that "there had never been anything like it in the history of Santos FC. Or at least, no one can remember a player who received as many standing ovations even before he got on the pitch, the euphoric chanting for the seventeen-year-old to be sent on." His first goal was against Mogi Mirim, Rivaldo's old team, and arguably even more so. This is because his grandfather, Seu Ilzemar, had recently passed away and he along with Neymar Sr used to love Pelé's famous fist pump. When he scored, Neymar didn't think twice and immediately replicated it in honour of both his grandfather and father.
After jumping to the sky, he immediately went and hugged Ganso, an old teammate from the under-20's. And the commentator for Sport TV, announced: "The kid from Santos shines! This is an historic goal right here! This is an historic date for Brazilian football." The fans were absolutely ecstatic, there's no other word for it. "He's the best player we've seen since Robinho and Diego," was the consensus amongst the crowd. The most enthusiastic? Easily Glenda Kozlowski, an athlete turned presenter and journalist. She predicted "Neymar could be the future Pelé."
Lima recalls that he needed to convince Neymar that the striker position is not his best, despite his fantastic finishing. "We were losing 1-0 so I moved him deeper, towards the middle," he recalls. "Neymar made two goals and we won the game 4-1. He was 14 at the time but by changing him, it changed everything. He became the more complete player." A number 10 or 11. In contrast, Pelé always knew what he was - A pure number 9.
Neymar was struggling to adapt to this new role of his. At one time, he even thought that everything and everyone was against him, according to Caioli, who beautifully narrates how a tearful Neymar told Lima: "No, Profe. You want to take me out of the area; you don't want me to score." Yet as Neymar will now realise, the reasons were more complex than that. It was not only because of Neymar's multifunctional dribbling and passing abilities, but also because of his physique (or lack thereof). Lima simply thought that Neymar was too weak and skinny to be an out-and-out striker, too weak to fight against the "gatos del futebol" ("football cats") and that it would take too long too bulk him up at Santos.
Zito, a former coordinator for the junior teams at Santos, agreed. "He was not wrong. Look at how he is now. You can imagine what he was like six or seven years ago," he said about a year and a half ago. Of course, the fact that he was addicted to burgers and soda and had a poor diet didn't help. "It was always an issue," says Lima. "He was really thin so we had to change the nutrition... to help him gain weight. A nutritionist in Sao Paulo created a plan for him. He was put on a hyper-calorific diet. We think this has helped him at Barcelona." Neymar put on about seven kilos of muscle mass at that time.
The weight issue didn't stop there, of course. It resurfaced when Neymar played for the Santos first-team and later on at Barcelona. Vanderlei Luxemburgo was Santos' manager and dropped Neymar to the bench, describing him as a "file de borboleta" ("stick insect") who needed to be protected. This in turn led to Neymar's diet changing even further, with the aim (and end-result) being weight gain. The same thing happened when he landed in Barcelona. It took a bit longer though due to him having his tonsils removed and treatment for anaemia in July and August 2013, respectively.
"For a time, Neymar single-handedly transformed Santos into the Cirque du Soleil (the show that children and adults alike want to see at all costs). He is the new Messi. It is, however, a shame that he has given birth to ‘Neymarisation.'" - Edu Marangon
Edu Marangon, a former coach at Paulista, laments ‘Neymarisation', the fact that many kids (even thirty-year-olds) and their parents in Brazil are imitating him to the point of dropping their daily jobs in order to fully focus on their (sometimes non-existent) football career. "But a Neymar is born every 50 years," he says. Edu is right in the sense that children should be able to dream big, but at the same time also be realistic. And this is where the role of the parents' is crucial. Yet there is nothing wrong with having a positive role model and imitating them.
Neymar was undoubtedly the star attraction, but as with any team game, it was all about the team. Neymar remembers how fantastic the Santos team was. He mentions them in his autobiography. Rafael was in goal. Para, Edu, Dracena, Durval and Leo with their blocks and interceptions. Arouca and Wesley were the masters of midfield. Ganso the passing genius, Neymar and Robinho used to dribble past everyone and Andre was a ‘fox in the box' with his incredible knack for getting at the end of most rebounds. Within a short period of time, they won the Campeonato Paulista 2010, Copa do Brasil 2010, Campeonato Paulista 2011, Copa Libertadores 2011, Campeonato Paulista 2012 and the Recopa Sudamericana 2012. Neymar won countless other awards too, especially individual ones. Yet it is these memories that linger.
Neymar scored several goals for Santos; 54 in total. He scored five goals on one occasion and hat-tricks on countless others. Yet it wasn't the masses of goals or the beautiful play which enabled fans to sleep satisfied at night. As Caioli put it, "It was the spreading of joy and desire to have fun which oozed from the pores of the latest generation of Meninos de la Vila." And none more so than Neymar. Caioli continues, "They invented one dance after another: the baseball hat and rap, the tennis match, the motorbike, the lorry, the rolling planes, the merry-go-round, the military march, the shoe-shiner, and the signature dances to music from movies. The range of dances seemed endless." There was even a statue of liberty celebration by the team dedicated to Neymar on 21 March 2010. They had brincadeira (fun). As the man himself put it, "It was one of the best years of my life", commented Neymar, years later, nostalgically.
Moreover, it could all have ended up very differently. In 2010, the first offer Neymar got was from West Ham for €15 million and whilst it sounded appealing to Neymar Sr, it was swiftly rejected. West Ham's approach, you may well remember, worked wonders with signing Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez in 2006, before they ended up at Liverpool and Manchester United respectively. A few days later, Neymar was very close to ending up at Chelsea whilst still at Santos. They made a €20 million bid that quickly escalated to €30 million and one which Santos really couldn't afford to refuse. Neymar's then agent, Wagner Ribeiro, thought it was a done deal. Neymar Sr was 99 per cent sure he would move. But Santos had other plans. They put a meticulous plan to try to convince their Brazilian prodigy to stay. There was a speech and a trump card in the form of a phone call from Pelé, the King, and his idol.
"Even Pelé called me. Can you imagine how important I felt? The King of Football called and asked me to stay," Neymar recalls in his autobiography. He was in another universe when he got off that phone call.
"He reminded me of his entire career with Santos, his five world titles with the national team and the club, and all the recognition he received. It wasn't easy but it was the right decision for us. We did the right thing for our family, friends and my career," writes Neymar.
Red Bull are known for only sponsoring individual athletes in exceptional circumstances, or "for extreme sports athletes," as they put it. Yet Armino Neto, Santos' marketing manager wasn't having any of it, and showed them a clip of Neymar scoring five goals in a game against Guarani in 2010 on his iPad via Youtube, whilst in a meeting, one at a time (watch this video even if for the goal celebrations alone, they are absolutely awesome). The Red Bull Boss replied with, "This is not a football player, this is an extreme sports athlete." "Ready to teach everything he learned in life, one day he will discover that no one really knows much, but actually learns from every moment. Before you, your child becomes a vulnerable adult. And it will generate, a little bit, within himself, the art of becoming a father." - Neymar Jr
Neymar loves his son, David Lucca Da Silva Santos, dearly. Yet he cried a lot when he first found out that he would become a father. He felt he wasn't ready. He therefore struggled to tell his family, especially his father, who warned him of making stupid mistakes and that all actions have consequences. After the initial shock, "he was incredible, as always," writes Neymar Jr. Neymar was at the hospital for his birth alongside David's mother, Carolina Noguiera Dantas (then 17) at 11:00 am on the 24th August 2011, and despite being a father at such a young age (19), Neymar is an incredibly caring and responsible father. The young mother said, "Juninho is a marvellous, caring doting father and a friend who has stood by me. When he was at Santos, he would come as often as he could, he was caring and showered him with gifts. Sometimes he stayed the night to sleep with David." David Lucca seemed to bring Santos luck and was some sort of a mascot for them, just as Neymar had been for the team his father used to play (for Uniao Mogi).
According to reports, the two parents take turns parenting their son. David Lucca's mother is supported by Neymar with a monthly income of £8,000 per month and now lives in a five-bedroom penthouse in Santos bought by him, according to the Daily Mail. However, that's only one side of the story. Carolina Dantas dreams of graduating in Medicine (she is a medical student), works out twice a day & follows a diet to keep it up and received a lot of stick for getting pregnant (to the extent that she had to leave all social networks) at 17, even though she considered not telling Neymar, but decided that she had to because her son would one day want to know who his father is. Even though Carolina and Neymar aren't together, their friendship is very good. Watch this lovely subtitled 'conversation' between the two in order to get a much clearer idea; they have showed maturity far beyond their years.
Neymar regularly hangs around with his family and constantly finds time for his son. Meanwhile, he has once again broken up with Bruna and was for a time dating Soraja Vucelic, as stated by Serbian media. He is now reported to be dating Elisabeth Martinez, according to El Mundo Deportivo. Yet Neymar pretty much put most of these (and countless other) rumours to bed with a tweet which was followed by three ‘crying of laughter' emoticons: "If all these girlfriends who they are putting to me were true, I would have to live in a country where one can have 10 women."
Neymar is a Christian who reportedly used to pay the tithe (10%) of his income towards church, but not anymore, yet he still helps the church on a monthly basis. His former futsal coach, Magri narrates that when he was 11 or 12 years old, he loved playing with either a white or red sweatband on his head. "His mother had made it for him so God can protect him, even though his father told him to take it off because his teammates called him ‘the masked man.' The writing used to say ‘Jesus is faithful' or ‘100 per cent Jesus.' "You can never justify a mistake. My parents always taught me not to try to explain my mistakes but to try and learn from them. In my darkest hours, my family will always be by my side. They are my most loyal fans, and my most important team." - Neymar Jr
The Brazilian prodigy knows that fame brings responsibility. He went shopping for a music player on his own for the last time in 2010. It was chaos, girls were crying, boys running and he's not sure how he got out. "All the affection is rewarding, but it scared me a little at the time," he writes. It goes without saying, but he's much more used to it now. And Neymar has experienced the other side of things. When he first met Pelé, he almost lost his voice. "It's almost like he's not from this world," he writes.
Neymar is humble and modest. His professionalism as well as dedication is unrivalled and he is always the last one to leave training. Whilst living in Santos, he only lived with his parents and drove a Mini Cooper. "It was a beautiful car," declared Lima. He actually took the bus to training for years. Of course, he used to also have another side to him, an individualistic and selfish one on a few occasions. And he hasn't always been an angel. He has sometimes been accused of diving, but he only goes down in order to avoid injury. He isn't someone who dives without contact. He has really improved in the last year or so.
There is the stamping incident at the end of a Copa Libertadores match against Penarol. Then there is the infamous incident in September 2010 when Santos had a penalty (which he had won himself) against Atletico Goianiense, as best described by Caioli. Neymar picked the ball up and wanted to take it but he was forced to surrender it to Marcel, a team-mate, after coach Dorival Junior said he had missed his previous three out of six attempts. When the penalty was scored, Neymar advanced towards the touchline and shouted abuse towards his coach having to be restrained by the linesman and even threw a water bottle in dissent. To compound it further, he went into "ball-hogging" mode for the rest of the match. He stopped caring about the team for the rest of the match. It was all about him. Brazil was stunned. And the fans were siding with their coach, rather than their idol. "Santos is more important than Neymar," they chanted.
In the following days, Neymar was labelled "a monster", "a bad boy", "an out-of-control rebel", and worse.
Coach Dorival Junior ultimately got sacked due to his refusal to recall the star in time for a clash again then table-topping Corinthians, after he tried to impose a further ban on top of the agreed one-match ban. It was an easy decision for Santos and their chairman (Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro). As Caioli narrates, "Better to have an icon, a fans' favourite, the prodigal player." Ultimately, it was a show of player power, but Neymar did show remorse and was sincerely sorry for what he had done. He publicly apologised and privately prayed to God for forgiveness.
"It was the worst day of my life. I cried all day. I came home completely gutted to see my father and mother crying too," Neymar admitted
"My mother had been at the stadium and had seen what happened. She told me this was not the son she had brought up. I'll never forget that. This was not what she had taught me to do. As I listened to their scolding, it was my turning point because I grew up from that moment. That horrible day made me a better person."
Surprisingly, (or unsurprisingly) there were no hard feelings from the sacked Dorival Junior. "He is already superior to Cristiano Ronaldo in every way. He is much sharper than Cristiano, more decisive in his play and more of a genius. As the years go by he will reach Messi's level."
"Neymar has an extraordinary dribbling repertoire. Impressive, I would say; a repertoire that shocks you with its inventiveness and freshness. It's pure ellipse football." - Jose Miguel Wisnik
The 22-year-old Brazilian prodigy is special, his extraordinary ability and undeniable flair testifies to that. Ronaldinho is a big fan. He described Neymar's career as being "pure futebol alegre; it is football art." Neymar finished third at the South American Footballer of the Year award aged just 18. In 2011 and aged 19, he won it beating off stiff competition in the form of Eduardo Vargas and close friend Paulo Ganso. He won it in 2012 too. Neymar won the 2011 Puskas Award ahead of Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney, an award to the "most aesthetically significant goal of the year" for a fantastic golazo that everyone should watch. He shrugged off two markers before bamboozling another and finishing with aplomb. As a result of it, he was awarded a plaque at the stadium. Neymar is also a supreme entertainer, as these sublime rainbow flicks attest - a signature Neymar move back in his Santos days. Neymar has matured a lot in the last couple of years (both as a person and as a player), I can't recall a single Neymar rainbow flick in Barcelona colours. Football is enshrined in the DNA of Neymar da Silva Santos Jr.
What do True Grit (1970) and Neymar have in common? Well, the vice-chairman of Sao Paulo once said that the only way to stop Neymar in his tracks is with John Wayne! (The Coen brothers remade it in 2010 with Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role). It's reminiscent to the answer provided by the late Manolo Preciado in response to a question on how Messi can be stopped. "A gun?" he replied without hesitation. Both answers were jokes, but only just.
Brazilians love making comparisons. And O Globo didn't waste a chance when it arose regarding which footballer reaches 100 goals first. Neymar reached the landmark at the age of twenty. Ronaldo, ‘O Fenomeno', reached it at the age of nineteen and four days, whilst Pelé was only seventeen years and nine months. Messi, on the other was twenty-two years and three months. Yet these comparisons aren't very fair. For a start, the leagues aren't equally competitive, some may start playing competitively at an earlier age than others and not all of the players are out-and-out strikers. But nevertheless, as Caioli put it, many Brazilians pride themselves on having Neymar reach 100 goals before Messi did.
"But let's be clear: Neymar is not on a par with Pelé (who was the best) nor Maradona (with his endless repertoire moves) nor Messi, at least for the time being - even if he could get there in the future." - Tostao
Tostao, another member of that World Cup 1966 squad, tells Caiola that Neymar's individualism and theatricality on the field are what separate him from the very best. "Diego Maradona loved to show off but it was extremely effective. O Rei (King), like Lionel Messi now, had an incredible ability to get to the crux of a move which Neymar does not," he says. "I never saw Pelé overdo it with dribbling or waste time dribbling for the sake of it. He flashed past his opponents with the sole aim of getting to the goal. Just like a great writer who in a few words says everything there is to be said, whereas others fill pages upon pages but say little or nothing." Everyone has their opinion, but there's no doubt Neymar has come leaps and bounds since then with his decision making.
Some argue that Neymar's tricks are excessive and that there is no need for them. Neymar, however, is unequivocal in his reply. "Tricks are part of our Brazilian DNA. Some look at them as useless, but in the end Brazil leads with 5 WCs." It's success and joyfulness combined perfectly.
Joey Barton once infamously called Neymar "overrated" and "the Justin Bieber of football." I'm not sure if he is still sticking with that opinion, but between them, only one player is overrated, and it's not Neymar.
Neymar's final season at Santos was chaotic, with Caioli being more knowledgeable on the situation than most. Off-the-pitch Neymar was constantly asked about his future, he had entered the world of show business and there were lots of TV adverts and promotional events to take care of. On-the-pitch things weren't going much better: the goals weren't flowing as they once were, he lost his great friend, Ganso, to Sao Paulo and Santos just didn't click into gear. On the day of announcing that he has signed for Barcelona instead of Real Madrid (who incidentally made an eye-boggling £117 million offer, according to what Neymar Sr told a court), he ended a memorable training session (with a camera tied to his head and filming the session) by writing on the changing room walls, "Eu Vou Mas ... Eu Volto!" (I am going but ... I'll be back!).
After an emotional and tearful last game against Flamengo, Neymar spoke to Domingao du Faustao about leaving for Barcelona, "Every kid has a dream. Some dream of becoming a footballer, others a dentist or reporter. I had one dream: I wanted to become a professional footballer. I've done it. Today, Barcelona is letting me live the dream of a young kid with the face of a man; I am a father after all."