Face of World Cup host Brazil? Look no further than Neymar
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- When the World Cup hopes and dreams of arguably the world's most successful footballing country rest on your skinny shoulders, you're going to need all the help you can get.
It is not known what great works of literature Neymar chose when packing his suitcases for Barcelona, but he could have done worse than to seek solace in a little Shakespeare. Dank and drizzly though it can sometimes be, Santos' Vila Belmiro stadium, our hero's erstwhile home, is a long way from the gloomy battlements of Hamlet's Elsinore. Nevertheless, there are more than a few parallels between the life and times of Brazil's current idol and Shakespeare's classic paean to troubled young manhood.
Still just 21, Neymar will not be the first young player to carry the burden of great expectations into a World Cup. But it is hard to remember quite when so much pressure has been heaped upon one so tender of foot. Whereas Denmark's first false nine had only his father's ghost to contend with, Brazil's young prince has the phantoms of five World Cup winning sides, from Didi to Garrincha to Pelé to Romário to Ronaldo, whispering in his ear. That's just the start.
Next summer will see the first World Cup finals games played on Brazilian turf since the "Maracanaço" in 1950, when 200,000 gaped in horror from the stands of the Maracanã as outsiders Uruguay stunned the hosts in the final game. The crowds will not be as enormous this time around, but Brazilian fans can be quick to turn on their team if things go badly, and there have been boos at a number of recent home friendlies. Outside the stadiums, a modest throng of 195 million people will hang on Neymar's every touch. Twelve years without a Mundial title may not seem much of a wait for most countries, but for Brazilian fans, it feels longer than a lifetime.
It is perhaps hard for those outside Brazil to imagine the extent of Neymarmania. The Brazilian sporting media had him in its next-big-thing sights even before he made his Santos debut as a 17-year-old in 2009. As the highlight reel -- the electrifying dribbles, the sublime, Artful Dodger style finishes (dinked, chipped, stroked, lobbed, floated, but rarely blasted), the impish taunts and tricks -- lengthened, the spotlight grew more intense.
Neymar has done his growing up in public, through both the good times (the three consecutive Campeonato Paulista triumphs, the Copa do Brasil win in 2010, the 2011 Libertadores title) and the bad (when his brattishness after not being allowed to take a penalty brought about the sacking of Santos' coach, Dorival Jr, and led veteran opposition trainer Rene Simões to proclaim "Brazilian football is creating a monster"). Nor can he be accused of shirking the limelight -- at one point last year he could be seen in TV commercials for no fewer than 10 different brands.
Surrounded by scrutiny, it is to be hoped that Neymar's toothsome soap opera star girlfriend Bruna Marquezine can offer the player a little more succor than poor histrionic Ophelia offered Hamlet, and that things out turn out better for the couple than they did for Shakespeare's gloomy pair. Whether they do or not, Neymar could be forgiven for sharing, at times, the Dane's aching sense of loneliness.
Overlooked by Dunga for the 2010 World Cup, he made his international debut shortly after Brazil's South African meltdown, just when the Seleção was in the process of culling its elder statesmen. Out went such veterans as Lúcio, Kaká, Maicon and Luís Fabiano. The new Brazil would be built around callow youth, in the form of Thiago Silva, David Luiz and later Oscar, Lucas and Leandro Damião. Neymar's peers, more or less, and good players all, but none of them knew (or yet know) quite how to help the Santos craque shoulder his heavy mental load, even if they could feel its presence.
"The Seleção is too big for Neymar to carry alone," his teammate Dani Alves said recently, "we have to help him."
The pressure, which seemed to ease slightly when Kaká earned a recall late in Mano Menezes reign, before the Real Madrid man was promptly dumped again by rehired coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, would only grow.
The cameras, not just in Brazil but also from Europe and beyond, trained their unwavering gaze on Neymar. As Brazil limped uninspiringly through friendly after friendly, and slid inexorably down the world rankings, the heckling grew louder. He was doing well enough for the Seleção, it was agreed, but only ever seemed to truly shine against the likes of China and Iraq. When faced with tougher international opposition, and even canny club opponents such as Velez Sarsfield and Corinthians in the 2012 Libertadores, his flame flickered only intermittently.
Could he cut it at the highest level? Was he really the man to lead Brazil to glory in 2014? Even his eternal champion Pelé wasn't sure.
"He's addicted to free kicks," he said earlier this year. "The Seleção is built around Neymar. But he becomes an ordinary player when he plays for Brazil."
The pressure to move to Europe grew. What could Neymar learn playing against the likes of XV de Piracicaba and Oeste in the Campeonato Paulista (just under half of the Brazilian domestic footballing year is taken up with the venerable, but outdated, state championships, when the country's biggest clubs take on lower-division local rivals)? Wasn't it time he packed his bags for Barcelona or Real Madrid, to grow wiser, and get better, in the Champions League?
Another easy parallel to Shakespeare's playmaker leaps to mind here -- that of the eternal ditherer. Neymar frequently declared his love for Santos, stating that he would stay with the club until after the World Cup.
"I'm happy here," he said on more than a few occasions, "why would I want to leave?"
That only served to make the rumors louder still. Just as Hamlet wallowed in self-pity and self-doubt, unable or unwilling to exact his revenge, so Neymar, for months, even years, seemed paralyzed, reluctant or afraid to take the plunge into the European shark pool.
But that would be to misread the situation. In public or not, Neymar has grown up a great deal since those petulant early days. He is by all accounts a doting father to his young son, David Lucca. His love for Santos is genuine, and his determination to stay with the club, and conviction that Brazilian domestic football has much to recommend it, even as the big money deals fluttered overhead, was refreshing. And his self-deprecating public persona, that of a typical Brazilian moleque (kid), happy just to be playing football (while admittedly hauling in enough cash to make Midas blush) is almost charming.
Evidence of this came last month, before his last game for Santos, against Flamengo in Brasília. Poised to sign with Barcelona the next day, the tears rolled down his cheeks during the national anthem. And during his final training session with Santos, he had scrawled "I'm going, but I'll be back" on the dressing room wall.
No longer the mewling brat, Neymar may at last have become a man (penchant for graffiti notwithstanding). Even if recent performances in a yellow shirt (most notably against France in Porto Alegre) have left something to be desired, the youngster at least seems to be aware of the task at hand.
"The pressure (on the Seleção) is huge wherever we play," he said in January. "And it'll be even greater at home. We expect it. But we enjoy it. Pressure can be a positive."
If the pomp of his Barcelona unveiling in front of 56,000 cheering fans was more Henry V than Hamlet, then perhaps this wasn't quite "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers," but it was a start. Now it remains to be seen if the prince of Brazilian football is ready to become a World Cup king. In other, better words, to be or not to be, as some jobbing hack scribbled way back in the mists of time. The world will wait and see.
James Young writes about Brazilian football for The Independent / Independent on Sunday, The New York Times, The Blizzard, and World Soccer, among others. He has lived in Brazil for the last eight years, and is currently at work on a novel about "love, death and football" in the northeast of Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @seeadarkness.