21 | OCT 2019
04 JAN | 2014
Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
With the World Cup approaching, Neymar faces his most difficult challenge
Neymar Jr, 21 years old, Brazil's main star.
His move to Barcelona can help him become an even better player and a global icon, but can also bring trouble for the national team.

s the Brasileirao became stronger and stronger every year, with millions of Brazilian reales channelled to attract local stars and make them come back from Europe, the revolution of Brazilian football suffered an unexpected setback for the World Cup: the biggest national star, Neymar, moved to Barcelona just when it appeared that he would have remained playing for Santos until July 2014, and leave once the World Cup was over. His record transfer fee could definitely make anyone fall off the chair (former Barcelona president, Sandro Rosell, would probably agree), but this shouldn't be enough [...]

Journalist. El Gráfico. Published articles in newspapers and magazines of 20 different countries. Travelling on a permanent basis, he's looking for a flat in Stockholm and dreams of running a hot-dog truck in Monaco. He hates fish, especially those who sell it smelly. MUNDBØL is his fault.


[...] to put behind the risks involved. Namely to start a new life, in his first European experience, trying to be part of the world's best team until a couple of years ago, now going through a reconstruction (some say decline) process. Just as it happens in the picture, Neymar seems to walks forward with no fear. People wave at him and he smiles back. He advances confidently. Each step brings a new challenge. Each challenge means a new test. How easy is to put up with so much pressure?

In 2014, Neymar will be definitely out of his comfort zone. The picture inspires you to think that either he keeps growing and becomes a giant, just as the fans expect, or that the dark tunnel finally devours him. One way or the other, without a third-option.

It’s worth remembering that Neymar Junior, is indeed junior: he has just turned 22 (on Februrary 5). True, the chosen-ones are capable of becoming decisive at a younger age, but at the same time, their prime generally comes at 24, 25 or 26. Used to winning trophies (7 club titles, including the Libertadores, plus the Confederations Cup with his national team) and individual awards (38 in five years would definitely scare anyone), Neymar learned to be a football prodigy since he started playing. At Santos, he seemed capable of taming the environment and enjoying his life as a footballer: being part of music videos and TV ads was part of the package. He lived how and where he wanted. In case he did not become the world’s best footballer (Pelé was already saying that he was better than Messi and Ronaldo), at least he’d be one of the best in terms of marketing, with his smile and his multifunction mohawk.

Neymar was the best player in South America in 2011, the year that he played the Copa America in Argentina (his haircut created more fuss than his lacklustre performances) and again in 2012. By then, it had become a national priority to make him stay in the Brasileirao until the World Cup, before considering a move to Europe. If he'd stay for Santos, no one would have worried about him arriving to the World Cup at his best. 

His arrival at Barcelona (mohawk mode off) changed the plan and brought up some controversy, perfectly cooked and seasoned in the Spanish press: a version indicating that Guardiola had told him not to move to Barcelona and pick Bayern instead; scrutiny over his (lack of) connection with Messi; and of course the controversy about his transfer fee: 57 million euros reported in Catalonia, 17.1 million reported in Brazil, most of the rest, it was to be discovered later, had reportedly ended in his father bank's account. But on the pitch, Neymar quickly responded by scoring the goal that allowed Barcelona to lift the first trophy of the season, the Spanish Supercup against Atlético de Madrid (1-1 at Vicente Calderón and 0-0 at Camp Nou). With the Barça move, Neymar can reach the World Cup as a more mature player, but also risks to arrive exhausted and in conflict.

After being a Messi’s victim in the Club World Cup final in 2011 (Barcelona 4 -Santos 0), he didn’t hide his admiration for the Argentinian. Now he enjoys playing with him. The problem is when Messi is not fit, as it happened in the first part of the season.

It was Neymar the one that had to cope with the responsibility of being seen as Messi’s successor. In a club like Barcelona, and particularly in the Messi era, two games without scoring are seen as a mega crisis. The Brazilian is still far from scoring as much as Cristiano Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and Messi do. But when they were 21 or 22, none of them would have been able to compete with their current figures, either. 

In the past three years, Brazilian football has shown that the main problem is not the unexpected delay in building stadiums, but the anger that provokes a possible defeat in its own land. Several abuses were seen in the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana, regardless of credentials: fans, managers, officials and players were threteaned and beat up alike.

In a country that learned how to kill in life the goalkeeper seen as responsible of the Marcanazo, Moacir Barbosa, after his mistake in the 1950 World Cup final against Uruguay, another hypothetical defeat will not be easy to tolerate. Pelé already said it in the World Cup draw ceremony: “I remember my dad crying after that (1950) game. I would not want my children to remember me crying in another lost final”.

The revamped Maracaná should have had a pot-shaped roof to simbolise the pressure cooker in which it will become. It's worth remembering that Neymar was already crucified once, on the cover of the Brazilian magazine Placar, that described him as “the nation’s scapegoat of a sport in which everyone plays dirty”.

Luckily for Neymar, another Brazilian, Diego Costa, appears as a good candidate for becoming the nation’s main target if things go wrong. He left Brazil as an unknown and will return as a formal enemy, having chosen to represent Spain and not the verdeamarelha. Are Brazilians ready to lose the World Cup final with a Diego Costa goal?

Without any other stars, the young Neymar was forced to become the new Romario, the new Ronaldo or the new Rivaldo, namely a team leader that guide his teammates to a home victory. Is he ready? The photo, again, suggests two possible answers.

“If you think that Neymar can become the icon of Brazil and Barcelona and lead them to glory, go to page 147”, would read his tailor-made Choose Your Own Adventure book. “If you think the time of Neymar has not yet arrived, turn to page 158”.

In mid-July, he will begin to write the ending that he wants, or that he can. It’ll be one of his first books in football; his collection is just starting. The challenges he overcame seem diminute compared to the ones he has to face. In the meantime, just as it happened with many other precocious talents, it’ll be good to release some of the pressure on him and enjoy his football. [Ø]

Martin Mazur