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Neymar's cultural significance to Brazil transcends soccer, World Cup

Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Neymar represents more than just a talented soccer player for Brazil, with his World Cup-ending injury stunning the host nation.

Tweets of sympathy and support from Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to Kobe Bryant and everyone in between, including super models (Gisele Bundchen), Olympic sprinters (Usain Bolt), footballers (Ronaldo and Lionel Messi) and soap opera stars (too many to mention). Hours of TV coverage devoted to detailed analysis of spinal columns and estimated back injury recovery times.

More hours of TV coverage dedicated to discussion of whether Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuniga’s crushing, knee-raised challenge was premeditated or not (the debate oscillating between “a normal part of soccer” and “a cowardly assault”). FIFA Fan Fests all over the country, filled with supporters who minutes before had been wildly celebrating Brazil’s 2-1 World Cup quarterfinal win over Colombia, falling still and silent.

On Friday evening, Brazil turned its lonely eyes to Neymar da Silva Santos Junior.

Surely it is not normal, all this hysteria. After all, Neymar is just a 22-year-old soccer player. And while a broken vertebra sounds like a dreadful thing, doctors say he’ll be up and walking around again in four to six weeks. No president has been assassinated, no child has died, no natural disaster has struck. So why all the fuss?

Because Neymar is not just a soccer player. In Brazil, Neymar is something much more.

Before the accusations of journalistic hyperbole begin, a caveat. Neymar is not the greatest player in the world. Neymar is not Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. He has won South America’s biggest club prize, the Copa Libertadores, but he has not won that footballing Nobel Prize, the UEFA Champions League, or even a national league title in either Spain or Brazil. He has scored 35 goals for his country, including four in this World Cup, but apart from the relatively throwaway bauble of the Confederations Cup, he has not led Brazil back to glory and fame. Not yet.

Another caveat. With apologies for sweeping generalization, Brazilians are a highly sentimental bunch, much given to shows of emotion. Exhibit A – the buckets of tears shed by Brazil players at this World Cup, from captain Thiago Silva in the tunnel before the opening game against Croatia, to Neymar during the national anthem before the group fixture against Mexico, to goalkeeper Julio Cesar both after and before the penalty shootout against Chile. Exhibit B – the homem cordial theory of anthropologist Sergio Buarque, which describes the Brazilian love of informality in personal relations, and the ensuing heightened levels of public intimacy and openness, both physical and emotional, that come with it.

One last caveat. The Neymar generally referred to in this text is the Neymar of Santos and of his early days with Brazil. The Neymar whose play was cheeky, imaginative and creative, at times irresponsible in its showmanship. Those qualities still remain, but since his move to Barcelona he has become more efficient, arguably more effective, stronger, more direct and disciplined. This is the Neymar most people see today – a fusion of Latin American individuality and European efficiency. When Brazilian soccer fans think of Neymar, however, they think of the younger, maverick Neymar.

But forget all the caveats.

Brazilians have been feeling blue since Friday not just because their best chance of winning the World Cup is now lying at home in Guarujá on the São Paulo coastline, watching the rest of the tournament on TV, but because Neymar represents Brazil in a way that no current member of the Brazilian soccer team – and not that many from the past either – represent Brazil.

It starts with that audacious style of play – the feints and dummies, the shimmies and nutmegs, the chapéus (literally meaning “hat,” in soccer the word means to flick the ball over an opponent’s head), the joy – Garrincha-esque – taken not just in winning, but in humiliating defenders, just a little, while doing it, and making the crowd gasp.

“Our national heroes – players such as Friedenreich, Domingos da Guia, and Pele – transformed a sport that was British, aristocratic and white into a passion that was Brazilian, popular and pardo. Brazil took an English raw material, soccer, and created a sophisticated cultural product, soccer as art,” Jose Roberto Marinho wrote in the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper in 2008.

Marinho was echoing the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, who in 1938 wrote that “our style of football seems to contrast with the European style because of a set of characteristics such as surprise, craftiness, shrewdness, readiness and I shall say individual brilliance and spontaneity, all of which express our mulattoism. Our passes…our tricks…that something which is related to dance, to capoeira (the Afro-Brazilian mixture of dance and martial art), mark the Brazilian style of football, which rounds and sweetens the game the British invented, the game which they and the other Europeans play in such an acute and angular way.”

Soccer as art. Futebol-arte. The interesting thing is that no Brazilian soccer player ever thought about futebol-arte when out on the field, only writers and commentators. The soccer players, many of them poor, thought about futebol-showing off, or futebol-standing out from the crowd. Because showing off and standing out from the crowd got you noticed. Showing off and standing out from the crowd got you a contract.

​Garrincha, the anjo das pernas tortas (“the crooked-legged angel”) who inspired Brazil to the 1962 World Cup title when Pelé went down injured, didn’t even think much about contracts. He thought about twisting the opposing fullback’s head and legs into such knots that he fell over and he could laugh at him in the bar afterwards. And Brazilian soccer fans adored Garrincha. As the historian David Goldblatt writes in his book Futebol Nation, “the King (Pelé) was and continued to be revered, but Garrincha was loved.”

Garrincha had the jeitinho, the Brazilian way of getting things done even when there seemed no way to get them done, creative, improvising, a little bit dodgy, a little bit unsafe, but that worked, most of the time. Many Brazilians, particularly the more elevated social classes, like to tut-tut at the jeitinho. But deep in their hearts they are proud of it, even if subconsciously, even if they will not admit it, like New Yorkers are secretly proud of their city’s abrasiveness. Because it is what makes Brazilians different, it is what makes them special.

Lots of Brazilians (particularly the more elevated social classes, natch) sigh and think about their country’s problems and look at the lives of their European and North American counterparts with envy. But when those European or North American counterparts come to Brazil and throw their hands up in horror at the informality of this or that aspect of life here, the Brazilian will laugh and say, “oh, you gringos, you’re all so uptight.”

Neymar, putting the ball through an opponent’s legs, pirouetting, even, on occasion, going back and beating an already humiliated opponent again just for the hell of it, has the jeitinho. Correction. Neymar doesn’t have the jeitinho. Neymar is the jeitinho. Neymar’s goal for Santos against a Flamengo side that included that other sorcerer of the dark arts of Brazilian soccer, Ronaldinho, in 2011, had the jeitinho written all over it.

A cousin of the jeitinho is malandragem. Malandragem is the black sheep of the jeitinho family. “Deeper linkages...were being made between Brazilian football and the lifestyle and culture of the malandro. The malandro was a stock figure of Brazilian culture – the hustler, the street smart, an urban warrior living on his wits and charm,” writes Goldblatt.  

The sly, almost bashful grin, the narrow eyes, constantly moving, rarely settling on any one thing for long, the quick, nervous movements, the slouch, those skinny legs - there is a little bit of the malandro in Neymar. If he had been born in Dickensian London, Neymar – the way he plays soccer at least - could be The Artful Dodger, pocketing an orange from a stall and melting invisibly into the crowd.

Which is where things get interesting. The malandro and the jeitinho are all mixed up in Brazil’s rich ethnic cocktail. “Every Brazilian, even the most lilywhite and golden haired, carries in his soul, if not his soul and his body...the color, or at least a hint of the color, of the indigenous people of the country, or the negro,” wrote Freyre in his masterpiece A Casa Grande e A Senzala (which translates as “The Big House and the Slave Quarters” but was renamed “The Masters and The Slaves” in its English language version) in the 1930s.

Most poor Brazilians are darker skinned and most rich Brazilians are lighter skinned. It is a sweeping generalization, of course not true across the board, but it is also statistically based – a 2013 study showed that black workers earn 36 percent less than non-black workers. Levels of violent crime in Brazil are terrifying – according to the UN there were 50,000 homicides in 2012, 10 percent of the world’s total. And the murder rate among black Brazilians is twice that of non-black Brazilians. Inequality and ghettoization and a lack of educational and other opportunities mean that in Brazil the faces of the recently arrested criminals staring into living rooms during the country’s alarmingly gory true crime TV shows are almost always brown or black skinned.

Give Neymar a torcida organizada (organized fan club, or hooligan gang, depending on your perspective) T-shirt and a baseball cap and put him on the back of a motorbike with another dark-skinned kid dressed in the same clothes and in the minds of many Brazilians he immediately assumes the look of the evil twin of the malandro, the marginal. Brazilians, particularly those from more elevated social classes, natch, are terrified of the marginal.  

But Neymar is not a marginal. And he is only a little bit malandro. He is the good malandro. He is still the kind of guy a girl might want to take home to meet her mom. Her mom would probably want to feed him up a bit. In the end Neymar, with his coffee-colored skin that represents Brazil’s complex racial mix and politics, and his air of the jeitinho and the malandro, looks like Brazil - all that is good in it, and all that is bad in it.

Bad, for Neymar is not a saint. In 2010, when he was 18 and playing for Santos, and his reputation was already sky-rocketing and the money was rolling in, things looked to be getting out of control. In one game his coach, a good man named Dorival Júnior, told Neymar that he didn’t want him to take a penalty. Neymar unleashed an expletive filled torrent of abuse at his manager. When Dorival Júnior demanded that club directors suspend Neymar for his behavior, the board, terrified of upsetting their prize asset, fired the manager instead.

Lots of people don’t like Neymar. Particularly, in Britain, Freyre’s home of “acute and angular” soccer, where they say he dives too much and is selfish and is a cheat. But being a malandro is not encouraged in Britain. Nor is the jeitinho. Britain is all about the collective good and industriousness and fair play, none of which sound very jeitinho. Tough, outspoken English midfielder Joey Barton likes to call Neymar a show pony. To which Neymar would probably reply – better a show pony than a carthorse, Joey.

In any case, most of Neymar’s irresponsible and unpleasant behavior came a long time ago, and he has grown up considerably since then. He does not dive as much as he used to. He is a father now, and a leader on this Brazil team as much as captain Thiago Silva or braveheart zagueiro David Luiz.

In the end, Neymar remains a mix of all those things that Brazilians have and are proud of having or being, whether they know it or not. Like his way of moving and playing soccer that is a bit like dancing, and of laughing or looking like he is about to laugh almost all the time, and of being more open and personable than he has any right to be, given the pressure he is under.

And of course, being a bit jeitinho and a bit (but not too much) malandro. And all of these things have been somehow mixed together in such a way as to create a very good soccer player indeed. Someone who Brazilians can look at and go, 'Oh, look at him, he’s Brazilian like me,' as Brazilian as the musician Gilberto Gil or the songwriter Vinicius de Moraes or the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade or Ayrton Senna, or someone from the country’s rich lineage of soccer malandros, like Garrincha or Romario or Ronaldinho.

Someone who, in the end, could only ever be Brazilian. 

James Young is a regular SI contributor based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He can be followed on Twitter @seeadarkness.

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