Neymar’s journey to a record-breaking transfer fee of US$262 million started in a poor district of southern Brazil, a few blocks from the local dump.
A spectacular move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain is expected to be completed this week after the 25-year-old striker and his father met with officials of the Catalan club on Wednesday, telling them that Neymar wanted to leave.
The son of a journeyman soccer player for Brazil’s smallest teams, Neymar was born in the industrial city of Mogi das Cruzes, some 60 kilometres north of Sao Paulo, the country’s biggest metropolis.
He never settled there, as his father’s career as a striker and family breadwinner meant they were always moving on.
When Neymar was six, the family moved in with his grandmother in Sao Vicente, a beach town 50km south of Sao Paulo. And when his sister Rafaella was born, the family moved again, this time to a bigger house in Jardim Gloria, a district in the poorer city of Praia Grande. Both homes were within reach of Santos, the Brazilian club made world famous by Pele and where the youngster first known as Juninho would start his own soccer career.
While his family was anything but wealthy, Juninho was the richest kid around at Jardim Gloria.
Neymar’s house was properly built, not a shack like those of many of his school friends. His street was properly paved and allowed him to play barefoot all day long, though he didn’t have to walk far to find dirt roads surrounded by wild vegetation. While other kids were lucky to have many toys, he had 50 footballs in his home collection at age 14. He even had a video game, which was a dream for most of his neighbours.
Neymar put down some solid roots during his nine years at Jardim Gloria, and today his charity - the Neymar Jr. Institute - is based in the area. The local dump, where some people used to earn a living from recycling, has been closed and the district has improved dramatically since Neymar’s family first moved there more than a decade ago.
As for the interest in soccer, that started when Neymar was just two, according to his father.
In 1998, at the age of six, he was spotted by Betinho dos Santos, a talent scout for the club Santos and who had also discovered another Brazil star, Robinho.
“Neymar’s father was playing on the beach in Sao Vicente, his mother was with the kid in the stands,” Betinho said in a recent interview for the player’s institute. “I saw that kid running around and he caught my attention. He already had agility and coordination. Of course he was very, very thin too. Then he started doing some tricks with the ball, tricks that a normal kid would never do. I was shocked.”
Betinho said Neymar had the Brazilian football swagger even at that age, and began taking him to play futsal - Brazil’s brand of indoor soccer that puts a premium on technical skills. His amazing dribbling and shooting abilities were soon noticed, with the late Santos and Brazil star Zito bringing the youngster into the club.
Juninho became Neymar Jr. after signing his first contract at 12, a move that made Barcelona and Real Madrid start to take a very close interest in the youngster.
On the field, Neymar quickly adapted from the indoor game, often playing against much older opponents, and he fully embraced being a Santos player despite growing up as a fan of rival club Palmeiras.
He made his professional debut at 17, in a match against Oeste in the 2009 Sao Paulo state championship, the start of a career that is set to make history in the sport.