The truth. Neymar da Silva Santos Junior opens up about the chaos and creativity surrounding his life. Revealing the strengths, secrets and untold stories of an athlete who transcends sport..

Photography: HAMISH STEPHENSON
Interview: MICHAEL TIMBS
Words: TOM EVEREST

The most fractious world we have ever known is forcing people to take a closer look at themselves. Giving people the opportunity to evaluate what matters most, what they need to change, what they can do to help others and what is their calling. By seeing less of each other, we are seeing more of each other as people are revealing what they are really like, who they are becoming and what they represent.

Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, or just Neymar to me, you and the 209 million Brazilians who worship the ground he walks on, has been discovering the answers to those questions ever since he first stepped onto the football pitch and into the limelight in 2009. Throughout his whole life, in fact – ‘my family didn’t start from zero… we started from minus five’ – Neymar has been working on himself. Looking to improve whilst giving his entire life to the game he loves, regardless of the suffocating attention it sometimes brings. He won’t remind you of it, not for one second, but sometimes it’s important to remember the weight of expectation on his shoulders.

“I am a very brave person, my greatest virtue is my courage,” he begins to explain with care, consideration and a level of detail that you don’t often hear from him. “It’s hard to say what people may see in me now, though. When I was a kid, it was easy. I was always that boy who was above average in every age group, I always played in the top categories and this made me popular in the city of Santos. It was easier back then. But, now? It’s hard to answer because today I believe I have become an idol, an icon in football,” he pauses, taking the time to piece together his words.

“Now, I am alongside the best players in the world, I am very proud to be here and also very proud to be treated as an idol, to be honoured by everything I have done on the pitch. I just hope to continue to bring joy to football.”

You see, Neymar’s a surrealist. He seeks to release the creative potential in every situation. He doesn’t play football for the numbers. He wants people to feel excited, feel something different when they watch him. That is his calling. He’s not got the Ronaldo obsession, the single-mindedness of Messi but he’s still intent on writing his story; something that no one has seen or heard before. “Perfection is non-existent,” again, he pauses, before declaring. “Art is different.” He exhales, laughs, in a gentle, revealing way that you seldom get to see him enjoy. “Perfect chaos has existed at various moments of my career. The perfect chaos exists in my career, because it is me!”

It explains exactly why Neymar is seen as one of the most influential players in modern football. It’s also the reason why he sometimes cuts such a divisive figure and often has people calling for more. More energy, more passion, more implausible skill. But, does going against the grain add to the pressure, scrutiny and speculation that often hovers over him?

“No, no pressure, I have never felt pressure,” he explains. “Quite the contrary, I am a person that can easily manage pressure; being the number 10 of Brazil’s national team, the number 10 at PSG and just being Neymar. I think I take it well but at the same time I know my commitment and I’m incredibly thankful to be representing teams such as PSG and Brazil. I know that when I play I have to do it differently, I have to give it 100% because that’s what everyone expects.”

It is what it is. In the cold, absent setting of the indoor tennis courts within Paris’ enormous Stade Du Parc sporting multi-complex, Neymar appears for the photoshoot. The expansive shell, its derelict condition amplified by a considerable drop in temperature, is not the usual setting for the most expensive footballer in the world, but he makes do. He’s at home in front of the camera. He’s relaxed. He is taller and more imposing than people might expect, maybe because he’s gained a few extra inches by slipping into a pair of trainers rather than his signature PUMA Kings. Once the shoot is through, he extends the offer to complete the interview in his own time. Beckoning us to his trailer which is stationed just a small walk away from the hub of the Stade Du Parc facility. In his own space, surrounded by a clique of close friends, you soon understand the currency that Neymar enjoys spending the most; time with his people. He laughs, jokes, orchestrates the room with his stories, his singing and his shuffling feet.

In conversation, as in song, he exudes a warm, serious charisma. He pays little attention to his entourage as the interview ticks through 10, 20, 30 minutes; we have the undivided attention of a man that is thankful for being able to tell his own story on his own terms. Rather than fuel the eternal fire of Neymar controversies or talk about money, Messi, Ronaldo, Pele, PSG or a return to Barcelona, we want to know more about the attitude, experiences and outlook of the man with fistfuls more to say than the usual narrative he is encouraged to punch out. So, what makes him different?

“In my point of view, you need to be a different individual on and off the field, and obviously everything involves a lot of effort,” he empowers. “You have to be good on and off the field and I thank God as I have been given great charisma off the pitch; I have become an idol to many children. I think that has helped me appear different and unique. When I was a kid, I always dreamt about having my own personalised football boots and now I have a story and a boot that I have been able to share with the world. I used to paint my own boots with my favourite colours before the games then after the matches they used to return to their original colours. It was something that made me different and they have shared that story to the world. I have many stories, many different dreams and thanks to God I was able to achieve them.”

 

Neymar also has this energy, or perhaps, at times a lack of energy, that steers a room. It’s a kind of stillness, a preternatural calm that seems to soothe the people around him. It’s the same quality that makes him appear in an alternate time zone when on the pitch. His lucid movements, the ones that regularly culminate in rainbow flicks over right backs, often give the effect that time has stood still. For Neymar, slowing down off the pitch is the best way to escape the noise that surrounds him.

That’s because, in the past few years, no one has been more consistent in making headlines. In 2017, Time named him one of the world’s most influential people, the first and only Brazilian to be handed that title, and just this year he was listed as the most marketable athlete in the world. Even as his football dominates the planet, Neymar cultivates a gregarious image. He is still only 28, and he has reacted to success with amusement and amazement while taking care to reassure fans that he hasn’t lost his taste for creativity amidst the chaos.

“I see things more clearly now,” he smiles. “Freedom… I do not know it like you, maybe, but I have it my way. I cannot do things that everyone can but, now I’m older, I’m trying to get closer to that kind of life. I like to be normal, I like to do the things that my friends do. I like to live a peaceful way. I know that my name creates attention, so I try to use it in a way that represents positivity both on and off the pitch.”

Although he is looking to secure a bit more of a private life, Neymar’s words still indicate that he’s influenced by change, stimulated by standing out and inspired to make a difference. So, we ask, why do you think you’re here? “What, in this trailer?” He jabs back, jovially. No, in life, your career, what do you think Neymar is here to do? “I think everything that has happened to me in my life so far was done by God. God prepared everything, he’s the person that I am completely grateful for. I have to thank him for me being here and for being recognised.”

He has a sense of humour that keeps you on the back-foot; making jokes with a deadpan expression then laughing at your reaction, as he does when saying soberly how he would love to skydive, although he recognises he may never get the chance for the sake of being Neymar. But, that’s the sacrifice of greatness. It’s something people have come to understand a little bit more thanks to The Last Dance, the Netflix phenomenon that highlights the tunnel-vision ambition of Michael Jordan, a friend of Neymar and the man behind the iconic Jumpman logo that the Brazilian was the first player to ever wear on the football pitch. That is, of course, before he made the recent switch to PUMA following a thirteen year allegiance with Nike.

“For me greatness is when a player reaches the highest level in his career or when his presence is felt as great amongst other players on the pitch,” he begins to explain. “When a player reaches his superior level and is seen as special, then that’s the true definition. It’s something that I’m always working on. Everyone has a unique view about football and, thank God, I have a gift for being different.”

But, does being successful, or being great, equate to happiness?

“No no, it is very different! A few days ago I had a similar conversation with my friends and they said ‘not everything that shines is gold,’ regardless of whether you have a great career and have achieved great things it does not necessarily mean you are happy. But thank god I have both, I have accomplished what I wanted and I’m very happy.”

Like any athlete, Neymar didn’t choose to be a record-breaking £198m footballer; he didn’t choose the attention, the backlash, the spotlight. But, he isn’t afraid to admit that sometimes he can be affected by it. The game that he has devoted his life to, the game that has given him an identity, is sometimes a source of fire and frustration. “I will never lose the passion for football, but I have had moments that I did want to stop playing,” he explains. “Once, I reached a point of asking myself why I should keep playing if they do not like it. I used to go home hot-headed and then remembered everything I’ve done to get me here. The love I have for football and all those things just calmed me down and brought me back to reality.

“Because, I’m very lucky. Truly. I have achieved a lot of things in my career that made me and my family incredibly happy. Just debuting for Santos FC, winning the first title with Santos, winning the Libertadores Cup was super important as well. Joining Barcelona was a dream of mine since I was a kid, winning the Champions League, my arrival in Paris. These moments will always remain special to me.”

In the abstract, Neymar’s image may still appear a little tempestuous. The theatrics he was known for in his younger years, the social media outcry following PSG’s exit to Manchester United in last season’s UEFA Champions League, or the ongoing does-he-doesn’t-he saga with him going back to Barcelona. But even the skeptics have discovered, over the past few years, that he is hard not to admire and, largely, underappreciated.

 

He receives glowing reviews from every corner of the football world. Fellow countryman Ronaldo says it’s time for him to ‘overtake Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world.’ Jose Mourinho admitted that Neymar’s world-record fee was fitting for his talent, ‘£200 million, I don’t think Neymar is expensive.’ While, more recently, Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone lauded praise on the winger. ‘He is extraordinary. He has a certain style of play that is his own. He has been criticised and people have been commenting on his personal life. But he is just enjoying himself, dancing and singing. People will always continue to criticise him and he always responds when necessary.’

So, does he think the world has a precise perception of him? “The truth is that everything people see on pitch is very different from my reality,” he tells us. “My friend once said that ‘they either know you and love you and, if not, they don’t know you,’ so that explains everything,” he says through the emergence of a sideways smile.

Neymar’s natural position is to tell the truth, as he goes on to explain what runs through his mind when he’s performing on the biggest stage; ‘I just see defenders that I have to go through regardless of whether it’s a beautiful dribble or not but, sometimes, even nice dribbles, the beautiful skills can come as an offence to people…” As he trails off, explaining the skills he honed whilst dribbling around plastic bottles when he was a boy, he begins to beam with his signature childhood wonder and I realise that the conversation is close to coming full circle. Everything Neymar does, wants or desires comes from him wanting to be Neymar. Unapologetically himself. So, it leaves only one more question to ask. How hard is it to be Neymar in today’s world?

He stretches back in his chair. “You know, I have never been asked this before,” he reveals. “I think that today the world is very sensitive. It’s funny, I think that these days nothing can be done and at the same time everything can be done and everyone does it all. For example, everyone judges you with what you do and even with what you stop doing.

“Also I think social media is one area where many people can come and take part of your life, by judging you, hating and envying you. That’s why I never take people’s comments seriously. I don’t like reading things that are not cool, things that are not necessary. But, there are people around me, my friends, family and teammates, who end up reading these comments and get upset. The world is very sensitive for that reason. It is very easy for people to talk about your personal life without really knowing you. But the real me, the real Neymar, is well known by my family, the people who work with me and my friends. They know me! These are the opinions I care about. What happens on the football pitch is something that only those who play the game can understand and those who have never played will never understand. It’s as simple as that.”

A moment passes and the smile reappears. “But, I always tell people, there’s only one way to live. Enjoy life! Be happy! That’s it.”

 

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