Brazil's World Cup hopes resting on 'new Pele' Neymar

Flamboyant star of Selecao carries hope of a nation for World Cup glory, but Brazilian great says he needs to cut out his fashion obsessions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 June, 2013, 5:52am


Neymar, the latest diamond extracted from Brazil's mine of footballing talent, carries the hopes of a nation with one year to go to the World Cup, as well as the tag of "the new Pele" and rock-star status in his homeland.

The flashy 21-year-old star of the Selecao, with his eccentric, perpetually changing haircut, is taking all the attention in his stride, vowing to "make his mark" at Barcelona, where he has just signed for €57 million (HK$587million).

As if it was not hard enough to be an equal to the legendary Pele, Neymar will also have to shine in the shadow of the brilliant Lionel Messi at Barca - the world's best player whom he hopes to emulate one day. Neymar has quickly established himself as an icon in a Brazil deprived of any major star since Ronaldo, Ronaldinho or Robinho lost their lustre.

The good-looking boy is everywhere in Brazil.

On television, dressed up as Elvis, Tarzan or as a martian, he sells ice-cream or dances virtually naked to launch an underwear brand. He is on web sites and at promotional events. Teenagers ask for a 'Neymar' at the barber's. Fainting girls throw themselves in his path.

His fame is spreading worldwide. In February, Time magazine called him "the next Pele" on its cover. US magazine Sport Pro recently named him as the sportsman with the biggest marketing potential in the world for the second year running.

Neymar is evasive about whether such attention puts him under too much pressure.

"It's part of the job. It's a responsibility but it's great," he said.

Nevertheless, daily newspaper Globo has dedicated a full page to Neymar - called "Neymarketing" - expressing concern about over-exposure that could harm his sporting prowess.

"Neymar is becoming the Brazilian Beckham," it assessed.

As a child, he asked for a football every birthday, honing his astonishing technique through futsal, the five-a-side game popular in South America which emphasises improvisation, creativity and ball control.

He was discovered at a school tournament and signed at the age of 13 for Santos. His first contract was for 450 reais (HK$1,625). His parents gave 10 per cent of that to an evangelical church.

Neymar turned professional in 2009 aged 17 with Pele's old club, Santos. He scored 137 goals, winning three Rio state championships, a Brazilian cup and a Copa Libertadores, missing out only on a national title.

With his step-overs, overhead kicks, feints and flicks, Neymar is a devastating, cheeky humiliator of defenders. Yet at the same time, he has an incorrigible habit of falling near defenders.

Another black mark on his copy book is that he has not yet performed well for the national side, something he could change when the Selecao open their Confederations Cup account against Japan on Saturday.

Despite a decent record (19 goals in 31 matches), Neymar was part of the team that were knocked out at the quarter-final stage of the 2011 Copa America by Paraguay and lost to Mexico in last year's Olympic final.

"In every match abroad he plays badly. They all think they can solve the Selecao's problems. Neymar isn't ready to accept that responsibility," Pele has said.

"It's said he's the best in the world. But he's more concerned with appearing in the media than playing for the team. He's pre-occupied with changing his clothes and haircut..."