Neymar is rested and ready for his next challenge … being the best player in the world.
The first thing Neymar Jr. does is change the music.
I will say in our defense that we had not chosen Shakira on purpose.
It’s Los Angeles, late afternoon, the buttery precipice of summer—Neymar’s first summer off since 2010. He was at the NBA finals yesterday (“It was very nice, incredible!”) and today is beginning a Nike press blitz whose rough theme is: Here is a Very Amazing Person, a Major Inspiration, and say, don’t you need a nice technical layer? Some new cleats?
We have been waiting for seven hours. We have spent them in a state of productive anxiety. We have rewritten our questions, placed and calibrated flash equipment, sketched and listed shots, and finally, unsure of Neymar’s musical taste, settled on a playlist: Latin hits, on Pandora. We are part of a conspiracy to make Neymar as comfortable as possible.
And here, suddenly, is Neymar: not quite tall and not quite covered in tattoos, brown eyes igniting to gold, in a Michael Jordan Birmingham Barons jersey—No. 45 and where did he find it—over at least two pairs of black Nike technical bottoms. Let me emphasize again that we did not specifically choose Shakira, nor did we choose “Waka Waka,” anthem of the 2010 World Cup, from which Neymar was controversially omitted. He arrived on short notice, and it is what happened to be playing.
Neymar comes in from studio right. He makes a quick survey of the various flash apparatuses, and tells a joke in soft Portuguese to his friends, and then he’s gone.
There are some very spiky moments as we consider our possible mistakes and wonder whether he’s coming back.
And then: 30 seconds of “Waka Waka” later, Neymar returns. Two of the entourage proceed to the iMac serving as a DJ booth and, on YouTube, find Yo Gotti’s “Down in the DM.” Neymar moves to the middle of the studio’s blindingly white cyclorama and starts doing a series of jumping shots for Roger Neve’s camera—seems pretty into it, actually—and the DJ designates move on to “DNA” and “Humble” from the new Kendrick Lamar, and Neymar starts pointing joyously at random comrades and mouthing “Be hum-bow.” By now he’s been given the football he’ll handle throughout the shoot in an extremely familiar, even intimate way, and time smooths out and softens, and it seems we’ve gotten away with it.
You are familiar with one Neymar: Call him the Neymar of appearances. This Neymar—distant and delightful and often on-demand—is a little clot of pixels out on the wild margin of your screen, embarrassing the others. He wears yellow or blaugrana and is loved in a way that goes beyond the goals. Why this might be so—that there is something in him that repairs us, that he has remained a fantasist in a period when Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have both become geometers, that his fantasies require from us a kind of indefatigable imagination, a right-there-with-him awareness that yes this could be the moment, and that this awareness is crucial for emotional survival in the dumpsterfire.gif period of history—is not the focus of this essay. Just look around. We are in a white studio in actual Hollywood. There is no goal and no defenders. Instead there are models in the hallway playing turgid games of Ping-Pong as they wait to be rejected by Moschino. This is a different genre: This is celebrity journalism.
Celebrity journalism is an odd, two-hearted project. It is half faith and half distrust. The distrust applies to appearances. Things that have happened in time have made us feel a certain way—but all we know is pixels, pictures, and stories. Perhaps something important has not been communicated. So we will see with our own eyes. There is a real, physical Neymar who is different from the goals and the statistics, and we will seek to find him and to illuminate the ways in which he’s different. We expect that the appearances have told us something other than the whole story; in this way it is a project of skepticism.
Still, it is partnered with a crucial faith. We believe that if we fly to Los Angeles to spend 90 minutes with the real, physical Neymar, something important will be revealed to us. We will see the year of his birth tattooed on his shins and the fleshy surgical divot on the back of his right iliac crest, and if we have anticipated well enough—if we play the right songs and ask the right questions and shoot the right photos—we might capture something we didn’t know before. Something in the Neymar of flesh and gesture will help us understand the apparent goal-scoring Neymar. In the end, time will tell us truths. As it turns out, the truths we are approaching will have to do mostly with time itself, and with Neymar’s unusual presence in it.
It is a moment in the game—and in the world—when we’ve become suspicious of time: It seems to be making things worse. The World Cup belongs to Qatari slavery and Russian influence operations, the clubs to Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola, and the Champions League to Florentino Perez, personally. We have lost Francesco Totti and we are losing Gianluigi Buffon, and we will get Gianluigi Donnarumma to replace them. This is all without even mentioning the politics. But Neymar still believes in time. To him time promises only a smooth, continuous improvement. “I’m always trying new things when I’m playing, you know, and this is gonna raise the bar, you know?” he says. “I’m gonna train everything to get better in the next season.” Time will pass, and Neymar will get better. It’s the way of things.
Not without effort, though: The time must be spent well. There is one player he is always learning from, one who is always surprising him: Messi. “Even before I went to Barcelona I was always watching him to see how I could improve my game.” Others, too, he’s learned from—“a long list of players, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Romário, you know—I admire them a lot.” He is adamant on the topic of training—understandably, since talent has never been a limiting factor for him. “Talent is good, but it’s not enough,” he says. “You need to keep working on your craft so you can get better. So both are essential. I knew a lot of great talented players who didn’t make it as professionals—they stopped in the middle of the way. I think you have to keep improving your game, practicing practicing practicing, even though you are talented.” Speaking of wasted talent, he aims a canny finger at one of his friends and says in English, “Like him.” Everybody laughs.
On this goes. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm, talking to Neymar. These are prompt and open answers, all honestly offered. In Neymar there is much joy and little menace—time has been kind, and he has kindness to offer in return. It is a calm summer, and he feels he has matured. He is close to his father and his son. Neymar Sr. is a frequent, ecstatic presence on Neymar Jr.’s Instagram—in addition to his agent. “I do what my father did for me. I try to be very close to my son, teach him everything.” But he does not think little Davi Lucca will play football. “He doesn’t like it!” Neymar says with a laugh. Whatever time brings.
Ever since 1992—when Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. was born in Mogi das Cruzes, people have been expecting him to make their dreams come true. His father, a physical right winger who lacked his son’s technique, agreed with his wife to name their son Mateus and then decided en route to registering the name that it simply must be Neymar Jr.—then embroidered the son’s natural talent with close attention from his friends in Brazil’s sprawling youth football industry. At 13, Neymar signed for Pelé’s old club Santos—a perennial contender haunted by perennial financial problems. Paired with Ganso and briefly with Robinho, he started winning campeonatos. Real Madrid came for him at 15, Chelsea at 18. Santos showed him an empty chair and muttered about Senna and national sport deification. He stayed until 2013, then mo ved on: to a Barcelona still grappling with post–Pep Guardiola ennui, and simultaneously into the spotlight of the national team.
The astounding thing is that he has fulfilled almost every expectation. For Santos he won a Libertadores and three league titles; for Barcelona a Champions League, two La Liga titles, and numerous smaller cups; and for Brazil a Confederations Cup and an Olympic gold. The only real disappointment is the 2014 World Cup, when he totally blew it by allowing Juan Camilo Zúñiga of Columbia to break his back in the quarterfinal and by being so emotionally central to the seleção that they came out for the semifinal in Força Neymar caps and then quivered their way through a 1-7 defeat to Germany. After 25 years like this you could forgive a little jadedness, a little angst in the compliance. You could even imagine some impatience—with his role on the wing, or with playing at Barcelona alongside one of the only two players in the world who could be more central to a team. Instead, he seems mainly happy to do what his teams need. “I like to play on the left side,” he says, “but there’s no problem—if the coach asks me to go play on the other side, that’s fine—anywhere, anyplace, you know?” And when prodded about FIFA and FA-level bad actions, he seems genuinely stricken. “I feel sad, you know, because this happened in my country—I feel sad but there’s nothing I can do. But in the future I hope things can be better.”
In fact, the greatest regret of his career seems to be an occasion when he was too assertive with his club. “I’ve had some sad days, but the worst day happened when I had a little argument with the coach when I was playing for Santos.” This was late in the Santos period, when he was very nearly bigger than the club—he was not allowed to take a penalty kick and he threw a kind of tantrum, and when the coach and board disagreed over how long he ought to be suspended, the coach was fired. “It was the heat of the moment,” Neymar says. “I learned after that experience, you know?”
What he learned seems to have been a kind of serene accommodation. “If it’s something that I can help improve not only my club, my teammates … I’m gonna raise my hand and I’m gonna talk and express myself,” he says—but not so dramatically as before. The serenity seems to be something like his natural state. Asked about his famous seven minutes against PSG in this year’s Champions League, when he scored two and made the necessary third to come back from a 4-0 first-leg deficit, he is simple and humble: “I have confidence in all the games, but something different happened—I think it is a miracle.” Has his confidence ever not worked out? “Yes, yes, I lost several games in soccer, you know?”
This “you know?” is common with Neymar—it ends many of his answers, and it seems heartfelt. He really does think that you know. He believes that the things he’s learned, the plain right thoughts about confidence and becoming, are things everyone knows. In this way he is generous. He believes you are fundamentally like him, that you have access to the same bright world that he does.
Toward the end of the shoot the photographer gaggle goes off to conspire, and Neymar is left idle. He is in the middle of the studio, shirtless, holding the football, and he begins a little game: he kicks the ball once or twice against the wall, then kicks it hard and juggles it once between strikes, then turns the juggle into a soft, curtsying, right-footed rabona. For three verses it looks almost impossibly simple, and then on the fourth the ball drifts to the left and can’t be saved except with a desperate en pointe left toe, which hooks the ball up onto the high wall of the cyclorama and back in the direction of a large and fragile-looking flash umbrella. It seems that property is about to be damaged. Now I want you to stop reading and remind yourself of that Neymar of appearances. Go and find the Puskas goal, scored at 18 against Flamengo, or this year’s seven-minute argumentum against PSG. Consider the joys he offers. Consider that he is a Kendrick Lamar fan and close to his parents, and that his transfer brought down an entire regime at Barcelona. But consider also that he is sometimes late for interviews and has shown a capacity for tantrums, and that he is serene and certain of some uncomplicated truths.
Consider that he swears he does everything to take his mind off football in the offseason. “I relax, and try to stay away from soccer and do other things.” Does he find this difficult? “Yes,” he says. “É difícil. I try to do other things, things I can’t do when I’m playing, things like play basketball, you know.” But consider this too: Allowed three idle minutes with a football, off-season or not, he finds a way to push himself so far he fails. He finds the limit of Neymar. Here is a story about time: What most of us learn, growing older, is a craft of distance. We learn that the levers of our happiness often lie far from our bodies; we learn to plan and to regret, to fly away into our thoughts and our iPhones. We learn to be absent, to hollow out each moment in favor of another.
But watch Neymar in the flesh, in a photographer’s studio, as the ball sails toward the flash umbrella. In many ways the fate of a flash umbrella is beneath him. But look at his face. See the pure, agonized concern there, and then—as the ball drifts overhead and then bounces into the hamstring of an assistant—the child’s performance of relief: a turn away, a little hop, a short soprano cry of presence. This is what Neymar knows, perhaps more than anyone I’ve met: how to be right here, in this vast and open now, and nowhere else.
And wonder also: what would you be like, wherever you were, if you were entirely there? You might be seven hours late. You might insist on different songs. You might throw tantrums now and then. But you might also learn an enormous amount just from watching the life a ball took on when your foot touched it. You might—out there on the wing—see one or two things that are hidden to the right back.
You might be Neymar—or you might not. But you might be a little closer.
This article first appeared in issue 11 of Eight by Eight. Please consider subscribing, and supporting our independent football magazine. Photographs by Roger Neve.