In a room somewhere in Santos’ Vila Belmiro stadium, a chair stands empty. It isn’t a particularly special chair. Sergio Rodrigues, the great Brazilian furniture designer, didn’t craft it out of jacaranda or anything like that. But all the same, it still left a distinct impression on a teenage boy. Neymar Junior remembers seeing it upon being summoned to the office of Luis Alvaro, Santos’ most successful president since Pele’s heyday.
Alvaro had received an offer from Chelsea and wanted to discuss it with Neymar and his father. Santos were not prepared to accept Roman Abramovich’s money and wished for Neymar to stay. Alvaro needed to use his powers of persuasion. He turned the lights down low and pointed to the empty chair. “This is the chair of the great national sports hero,” he told Neymar. “Since Ayrton Senna’s death, this chair is vacant. If Neymar stays at Santos and refuses Chelsea’s offer, he will give his first step to sit in this chair.”
Neymar stared at the chair, the inanimate object suddenly imbued with a fantastical symbolism. One of its former occupants then called him. It was Pele, the player who put this port town on the map, someone whose name is synonymous with Brazil, Santos and the World Cup. “Can you imagine how important I felt?” Neymar recalled. “O Rei, the King of Football called and asked me to stay. 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.”
But it was the empty chair that had the greatest effect on Neymar. It captivated him. He told Alvaro of his intention to stay and called a press conference to announce his decision. The chair inched closer and it seemed only a matter of time before Neymar made it his throne. A year after turning Chelsea down, he faced Penarol in the Copa Libertadores final. Almost half a century had passed since Santos were last champions of South America, the golden era of Pele. Neymar changed that. He scored the opening goal in a 2-1 second-leg win and the chair moved closer again.
Asked if Neymar might one day surpass him, Pele thought about it for a split second then laughed at the notion. “He’d have to score 1,282 goals,” he said. But one of Neymar’s goals had already gone around the world. Everyone was talking about it. It came in a fun, free-styling Zoolander walk-off of a football game between Santos and Ronaldinho’s Flamengo in which Neymar escaped his shackles on the sideline, played a quick one-two inside, then used his right foot to drag the ball across himself, his left to nudge it past a hapless defender and the outside of his foot to dink it over the keeper. It won the 2011 Puskas Award and all of a sudden Neymania swept across Brazil.
Há oito anos, @NeymarJr fazia o gol mais bonito de sua carreira, em plena Vila Belmiro. O Prêmio #Puskás, no final daquela temporada, era algo inevitável. Surreal! ? #MemóriaSFC
Créditos: Rede Globo pic.twitter.com/dmIHOruAUz
— Santos FC (@SantosFC) July 27, 2019
Turn on the TV, drive past a billboard, walk into a store. He was everywhere. Brazilians styled their hair into Neyhawks. They screamed upon catching a glimpse of him diving in and out of cars, hotels and restaurants as if he were the winner of Brazilian Idol, a pop star rather than a footballer; the Prince or Lenny Kravitz of jogo bonito.
On the one hand, his career has tracked expectation. Neymar is the most expensive footballer in history. Lionel Messi says he is “unbeatable”, “a phenomenon”. He is one of a dozen or so players to win the Copa Libertadores and the Champions League. Incidentally, Barcelona haven’t won it since his time at Camp Nou. He is a member of the MSN and MNM, arguably the most talented forward lines ever assembled with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at Barcelona and now Messi and Kylian Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain. In Qatar, he will be the first player since Pele to wear Brazil’s No 10 shirt at three World Cups. He is expected to surpass Pele as Brazil’s all-time top scorer. All he needs is three goals.
But the chair Alvaro pointed to in Vila Belmiro remains empty.
It’s been one step forward, two steps back for Neymar. He has stumbled, he has experienced pain; a broken back, fractured metatarsals, torn ankle ligaments. He has been led into temptation, misguidedly conjoining his image with that of PSG; the excess, the luxury, the money can’t buy happiness, the one Champions League humiliation after another. Lost rather than found upon leaving Barcelona, Neymar may have briefly stepped out of Messi’s shadow only to move into a different shade of darkness; the relative obscurity of playing in the fifth of Europe’s top five leagues.
Even his proximity to France Football has not (yet) translated to Neymar matching Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka in winning the Ballon d’Or. After twice finishing on the podium behind Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (in 2015 while at Barcelona and in 2017, having moved to PSG in the August of that year), Neymar has since never been higher than 12th in the voting. He has failed to make the 30-man shortlist twice, the injuries and ennui causing the coaches and journalists on the judging panel to overlook him. They forgot about Ney. And when PSG reached the club’s first Champions League final in 2020, a not insignificant breakthrough, France Football decided against assigning the award. It would have gone to Robert Lewandowski anyway.
In Neymar: A Perfect Chaos, the Netflix documentary produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, Neymar’s father, a mediocre former footballer who quit the game at 32 “without a penny”, is concerned about his son’s legacy. The dynamic between them at times appears tense, especially when Neymar is accused of rape, accusations he denied, the investigation later dropped. Neymar senior tells junior he doesn’t listen, that he won’t have a career in 10 years, that everything they’ve worked for is under threat. He claims to have disagreed with Neymar’s decision to leave Barcelona. He doesn’t want his son to ditch PSG. He wants Neymar to one day take over the business he built in his name. Neymar doesn’t seem interested.
Critics in Brazil have long depicted him as Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, the leader of the lost boys. But in his sprawling apartment complex in Bougival on the outskirts of Paris, a painting of Neymar portrays him as Batman and the Joker. It’s a curious juxtaposition; Neymar as a superhero, the craque from Praia Grande with the power to conquer the world and Neymar as a supervillain, the “monster” that former Atletico de Goias coach Rene Simoes claimed to see all those years ago when Neymar, still a teenager, shocked him by berating his captain and his coach during a game for Santos.
“It really f****ed me up when he said that,” Neymar reflected. He did not identify with it. But the image persisted and the light has occasionally flashed to transfigure Mr Hyde into Dr Jekyll like, for instance, the time he punched a fan after the final of the Coupe de France. Not for the first time he put Brazil’s coach Tite in an awkward position. Tite carries himself like a frontier preacher and his moral code has been a factor in squad selection. Douglas Costa was dumped after spitting at Sassuolo’s then-winger Federico Di Francesco while playing for Juventus in 2018. An exception was made for Neymar, thus leaving Tite open to complaints of hypocrisy. The indulgence of him manifested itself in other ways, such as Neymar Sr’s appearances in the Brazil locker room at a time when Willian’s old man was repeatedly turned away from the team hotel by security.
Privileged, precious and petulant, Neymar was already polarising before he lent Jair Bolsonaro his support during the recent presidential election campaign in Brazil. He wasn’t alone in doing so. Other high-profile players like Thiago Silva and Dani Alves backed Bolsonaro, as is their democratic right. But by publicly declaring for him, he perhaps showed the same lack of judgment that distinguished other moments of his career. Brazil’s famous canary-coloured shirt is in the process of being depoliticised after the far right kidnapped it over the last four years and some of the 60.2m who voted for the election’s winner Lula are asking the same question posed by the Folha de Sao Paulo columnist Sandro Macedo: “How to support Neymar’s Brazil despite Neymar?”
He is used to dividing opinion. “My friend, I’ve been criticised since I was 13,” Neymar posted on Twitter after he was accused of diving to win a penalty in a pre-season friendly between PSG and Gamba Osaka. On his social media channels, chapter 54, verse 17 of the book of Isaiah is referenced. “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn.” Neymar expects to be shot at. Brazil’s foremost football magazine Placar alluded to it earlier this year when they copied the Esquire front cover of Muhammad Ali as Botticelli’s Saint Sebastian, bloodied and stuck through with arrows, the Neymartyr.
Neymar would probably admit he is no saint, but in strictly football terms what happens at the World Cup in Qatar will ring in eternity. It will decide his legacy and whether a bust of Ney is considered worthy enough for the pantheon of Brazil’s all-time greats next to Pele and Garrincha, Zico and Socrates, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. It will be an elevator, a chance to remind everyone of the godly heights he hit in 2017 when Neymar almost singlehandedly completed the greatest comeback in Champions League history as Barcelona came back from 4-0 down to beat PSG 6-5 on aggregate with him scoring a free kick and a penalty before assisting Sergi Roberto for the stunning stoppage-time clincher.
Memories of Barcelona ? Paris… ?
What will happen this time?#UCLdraw pic.twitter.com/B4TOdDeHkH
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) December 14, 2020
That game changed Neymar’s life, the course of his career and the European football landscape as we know it. Humiliated, PSG’s Qatari owners authorised the payment of the €222million buyout clause in Neymar’s contract with Barcelona. It sent the Catalans into a spiral. They misspent the money on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and later Antoine Griezmann, racked up more than a billion euros of debt and could no longer afford to keep Messi, who joined PSG on a free transfer in the summer of 2021. It’s funny how things work out. When Neymar signed four years ago, it was to strike out on his own. Barcelona was Messi’s club. Always would be. Neymar needed his own and PSG obliged.
“When I arrived at PSG,” in the same 2017 transfer window, “the plan was to support Neymar,” Kylian Mbappe said. “Ney is the only star, the cornerstone. He came to Paris with a mission and I’m here to support him.” Over time the situation has changed, the hierarchy has altered. Neymar wanted out. He tried to go back to Barcelona and failed. The PSG fans turned on him and spent one afternoon at the Parc des Princes abusing him non-stop during a game against Strasbourg. “I’ve never witnessed anything like it before,” Thiago Silva said. PSG gradually became Mbappe’s club and when Messi then had his picture taken under the Eiffel Tower, the shadow he stepped out from threatened to eclipse him again.
PSG also seemed to be drawing a line.
“We don’t want flashy, bling-bling anymore, it’s the end of the glitter,” the club’s president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said. No more Neymar? As speculation mounted about his future and PSG’s intentions, Neymar suddenly started to play his best football since moving to Paris. Last month, L’Equipe marvelled at his form, the French sports paper’s front page asking the question: “Is this the best Neymar?” The answer unequivocally is: Oui. He has scored 15 goals, set up another 11 and created 57 chances in just 20 appearances in all competitions.
The football he has played could not be more representative of the Brazilian ideal.
A dribble against Troyes captured it perfectly; Neymar slalomed past five players then pirouetted on the ball and backheeled it through for Mbappe, a skill straight out of one of those adverts Nike used to make featuring Brazil before a World Cup.
Pure filth from Neymar! ?
It was so close to being a picture-perfect goal ? pic.twitter.com/HyTGsoXz0Z
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 29, 2022
Neymar has distinguished himself with his efficiency and work ethic this season. “He’s the one who gives us the best balance,” PSG coach Christophe Galtier said after their 1-0 win over Lyon in September. He has allowed Galtier to ditch an extra centre-back and add Fabian Ruiz to Vitinha and Marco Verratti in midfield, changing PSG’s system from 3-4-3 to a more attacking and qualitative 4-3-2-1. “(Neymar) has this ability to repeat his efforts,” Galtier praised. “He has volume and intensity. He’s generous with the team. He gives us good balance. He’s able to track back and have flashes of skill and technical quality. He’s a great creator and his behaviour has been beyond reproach.”
It echoes what some of his other PSG coaches have said about him. “Neymar has a good heart,” Thomas Tuchel said. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard to see that he is a nice person when you only watch him play from the outside. But he is. He’s a nice guy.” The Athletic’s guest columnist Mauricio Pochettino is of the same view. “For me, Neymar is really genuine. He’s always going to express what he feels. If he’s happy, he’s going to show he is happy. If he’s upset or sad, he’s going to show the emotion. He’s not going to hide nothing,” Pochettino says. “After working with him for a year and a half you love him because he’s genuine and he’s an amazing talent.
“We had many, many conversations because he loves football, he’s Brazilian, he loves samba, dance, the happiness. He sees life in a different way than me. I’m Argentino, we’re different. I like the way he is because his inspiration is his happiness, he needs to be happy to play football and show the quality. He needs to be in a very good mental level and not sad in order to give his best. Now he’s in a very good point, a good moment for him to show the real quality and the leadership because he has big, big character and can be a leader that Brazil expects. We’re in a moment that’s going to be very interesting because Messi is in his best moment, Neymar is in his best moment and they are two kings.”
In strictly football terms, Neymar has never gone into a World Cup in such scintillating form. He is injury-free despite Dylan Bronn’s straight red-inducing reducer on him in Brazil’s final friendly before the World Cup against Tunisia at the Parc des Princes in September. “It’s an attempt to take a player out of the World Cup,” Tite seethed, after confronting Bronn as he walked down the tunnel. Not the first time either. Neymar was taken to hospital in a helicopter in 2014, the third vertebrae in his spine fractured by the knee of Colombia full-back Juan Camilo Zuniga in the final minutes of a dirty World Cup quarter-final in Fortaleza which featured 54 fouls. “The bad news is you’re out of the World Cup,” the specialist told Neymar. “The good news is that if it had been an inch to the side you would never have walked again.”
His body has taken a beating over the years. While chasing down Bouna Sarr in the Classique against Marseille in the spring of 2018, Neymar sprained his ankle and broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot ahead of the last World Cup in Russia. He made it but played hyper-sensitive, going down under the slightest contact to the exasperation of commentators. Memes of Neymar rolling around on the floor went viral and drew derision as his reputation for cai-cai (diving) reached its apex. The esteemed columnist Juca Kfouri witheringly paraphrased the poet Fernando Pessoa’s definition of an artist as a pretender who “pretends so completely that he even pretends the pain he truly feels is pain”.
But there’s no doubt Neymar has suffered. He left the stadium on crutches and in tears after tearing his ankle ligaments against Qatar in Brazil’s penultimate warm-up game before the 2019 Copa America and he later posted a photo of the golf ball-sized swelling bulging out of his leg. Without Neymar, Brazil won the tournament for the first time in 12 years and as happy as he must have been for his team-mates, his country, it can’t have been easy watching from the sidelines. His only winners’ medal with the Selacao to date is the gold one draped around his neck at the Rio Olympics, an achievement of huge local significance given Brazil had never won the football tournament at the Games but one that did little to alter perspectives on Neymar in the wider football world.
He is unquestionably the player who stands to gain most by winning the World Cup in Lusail on December 18. Mbappe already won the competition four years ago, scoring the goals that helped knock Messi’s Argentina out in Kazan then another one in the final against Croatia. “Welcome to the club,” Pele then tweeted as Mbappe joined him as the only player to score in the final in their teens. Mbappe is still only 23 and has more World Cups to come. Neymar and Messi don’t. This is it. It’s Doha and out, the last chance to make the World Cup a part of their mythos.
Opinions of Messi are unlikely to alter either way. Sure, it would represent maximum fulfilment and provide a Hollywood ending to the greatest of careers. But just as Diego Maradona didn’t need a European Cup to cement his reputation as one of the greatest players of all time, Messi’s status will be intact regardless of whether he matches him in leading Argentina to World Cup glory and the tercera. The same goes for Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. Winning the Euros in 2016 alleviated some of the pressure in much the same way winning the 2021 Copa America at the Maracana did for Messi.
For Neymar it’s different. The stakes are higher. There’s a case to be made that this tournament is bigger for him than anybody else. But the occasion shouldn’t overwhelm Neymar. It should lift him. This is the best Brazil team he’s ever played in. The supporting cast is absurdly good.
An empty chair still stands in front of Neymar. Will he finally take his seat among the greats?
(Top photo: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)