A painfully thin little guy walks into our meeting place, an old industrial loft converted into a studio in a quiet corner of Barcelona. This is Neymar: the first great Brazilian soccer player to emerge in over a decade, hero of teenage girls and middle-aged men, and the forward who, at just 22, is charged with delivering his country its sixth World Cup this year. Neymar greets us with that magical smile—which you sense he uses as a weapon to charm and ward off the world. Then he walks into the dressing room, and we are granted a sight for which some would kill: The shirt comes off. Beneath the tattoos, he still looks slight, not like the typical muscle-pack soccer players of today. But then he has only been playing in Europe, with FC Barcelona, for a year. The camera loves Neymar. He isn’t beautiful, like David Beckham, but his smile is, and he has “ginga”—that peculiarly Brazilian rhythmic, jaunty way of moving, almost like dancing. Finally he sits down—shoulders hunched defensively, but still with that smile—and talks for an hour in his informal, colloquial Portuguese about what it’s like to be Neymar.
THE RED BULLETIN: How do you deal with the pressure of all of Brazil asking you to win the World Cup?
NEYMAR JR: It’s been a dream since I was young, and today it’s right before me: I’m Brazil’s No. 10, I’m going to play the World Cup, in my own country. I can’t see that as pressure. It has to give me pride and happiness to take onto the field. Everyone says winning the World Cup is an indescribable joy, so I’m dying to feel that myself. I can’t wait to shout, “We’re champions!” They say, “You’re under pressure, being the big name in the squad.” I’m not under pressure, I’m happy. I’ve always done things my way. I’ve had press with me since I was 13, saying I’d be the new Robinho. I’m someone who doesn’t really worry. If you don’t tell me that I’m Neymar and that I play for Barcelona and Brazil, I’ll forget it. People imagine me as they see me on television, but I’m completely different because I don’t feel pressure about anything.
What are your memories of Brazil’s last victory in the World Cup, in 2002?
I was 10, so I understood soccer. I woke up before dawn to watch the final at home. I even had Ronaldo’s haircut. I watched with my parents and sister, everyone together. Then we went to my granny’s house, we had a barbecue, everyone shouting, “We’re champions!” like real fans. The World Cup has always been my goal in life. It’s funny that today it’s nearly come true.
How was your childhood?
Tough. We didn’t have much money, but I never went hungry; my dad always provided. I don’t think I was ever unhappy, even if I didn’t have what my friends had, as they had more money. There’s a story I told my mum: that when I became rich, I’d buy a cookie factory so I could eat cookies whenever I wanted. So there were all these funny things I remember. I never complained or asked, “God, why am I poor?” I always fought for everything, all my family was like that. I always went to school; I wasn’t the kid who always paid attention, but I obeyed my parents. My dad was a soccer player and knows the soccer player’s path. He always knew what was going to happen, and maybe I won’t go through the same difficulties he did.
Did your childhood inspire you to start the Neymar Jr. Institute, which uses sports to help needy young people?
The institute was founded in Praia Grande, 150 feet from where I lived. The point was to inform parents, to help them teach their kids that they can make their dreams come true, if they fight and work for them. I think you can make any dream come true. Your gift is dribbling. Did you copy feints from other players? I followed Robinho closely because when I went to [Brazilian soccer team] Santos, he was the star there. He’s my idol, and he dribbled a lot. And I’d watch Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo; any skillful player you can think of, I’ve seen videos of them. In kickabouts or training, I’d try to do the same. When it was game time it would come naturally. All dribbles where you’re trying something different, it’s about practicing them. I don’t have a trick that I’ve invented yet. I have normal dribbles like using your body to trick the opponent, or the step-over, which I train and use a lot. I’ve used [Zinedine] Zidane’s roulette [spin move]. I’ve copied a lot.
Has dancing helped develop your soccer?
I think every Brazilian likes to dance a little. Put on some music that gets you in the mood, and a Brazilian might be sitting down, but he’ll always dance a little. I come from a family that loves samba and pagode [a style of folk music]. I think I have a little Brazilian ginga, something in the hips. I love to mess around with friends, to dance. It even got into my goal celebrations at Santos: That’s how we’d have fun, scoring and doing dances in tribute to a singer friend or to the song.
Your soccer looks joyful. Do you still feel joy playing or is it a job now?
It’s fun that has to be managed. You must be serious with it. But I’m always happy when I play. When you’re happy, things naturally work out; when you’re sad, things never work out.
In 2010, you quarreled on the field with Santos’s coach after he stopped you taking a penalty. Did that change you?
It was one of the worst moments of my life because I knew I was wrong. After the match I apologized to the coach. But what shook me most was arriving home and finding my mum crying. She said she’d watched it on TV and that wasn’t the son she had raised. I cried all night, I didn’t sleep. It made me grow into a man. I think that was my worst moment in soccer because it involved the whole family. My dad was ill then, in bed, and my mum said he’d always fought for me.
How do you look back on your first season at Barcelona?
It wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t bad. It’s my first time living outside my country. I miss my friends and family. It was hard at first. I’ve learned a lot professionally, but also in my personal life. I study my teammates, what they talk about, how they act with other people. I take a little from many players and adapt it to my style. Some people are good on the field, others off it, some show good behavior in training. I pick attributes from each one.
What’s surprised you about Lionel Messi, seeing him every day here?
He surprised me in every way. Before coming here, I heard all the horrible things people say: that he’s very reserved and doesn’t talk to anyone. Now I see it completely differently. Aside from being the genius, off the pitch he’s always great with me—not just me, but when I see him with other people, too. There’s nothing bad I can say about him.
What prompted your banana campaign, #somostodomacacos (“we’re all monkeys”), on social media against racism? The picture of you and your son with bananas went viral.
The motivation is that I suffered racism in other matches. I think racism is practiced by people without brains. When this incident happened with Daniel [Alves, his Barcelona teammate who ate a banana thrown at him on the field], I thought it was the moment to launch this campaign. It was a joke: “We’re all monkeys” means we’re all the same, whether you’re white, yellow, rich or poor.
You’re close to fans via social media but they ask a lot of you. Does that bother you?
It doesn’t as such. What bothers me is when they get into my personal life. I understand that fans love knowing everything, but my personal life is the same as anyone else’s. It was a little difficult to get used to at first when I was quite shy, but nowadays I’m used to it. I’ve always been the way I am, speaking to everyone, playing around. I’ve never changed and never improved.
Diego Maradona used to long for the days before fame. Do you ever feel that?
No … I get what he means. It’s difficult for me to do what a normal person does. For example, I can’t take my son to the beach in Santos. It’ll get crowded, people will take photos. In the street, a Brazilian will spot you a mile away. He’ll run over shouting, “Neymar!” Here in Barcelona, they’re more like, “Neymar, could I have a photo with you?” They’re more relaxed. You do miss taking your child to the fair or beach. I think that’s what he meant. But I don’t complain about it because this is something I asked of God. I always told him I wanted to be a soccer player, to be famous, to give my family everything they want. I have to enjoy even the annoying parts. I always find a way to have fun, whether it’s going clubbing, to the beach, the cinema. There’s always someone who recognizes you, and I will face them. If I have to talk to 50 people, I will. The moment I step onto the street, I have to remember I’m the Neymar everyone knows. But at home, I’m the Neymar the family knows. I’m not even Neymar, I’m “Juninho”—I’m someone else.
Full name: Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior
Born: February 5, 1992, Mogi das Cruzes, Brazil
Fun Fact: Neymar is the only Brazilian athlete to ever grace the cover of Time magazine
Team talk: There’s a good chance Neymar will come up against some Barça teammates at the World Cup. “We joke, saying, ‘We’re going to win it,’” he reveals. “I’ve joked with Messi and said, “This one is Brazil’s, and I’ve told Iniesta and Pique, ‘You’ve already won one, let us win this one.’”
Let’s talk about Brazil’s national team, known as the Seleçâo. First, who chooses the dressing-room music?
Anyone can choose a song. People like pagode, funk, sertanejo. I always go to the stadium wearing headphones, listening to gospel music. Then, to get in the mood, we put a pagode on the hi-fi so everyone can listen. We’re all close, we joke around, egos are left at the door. We only have one goal. Since we all help each other, we’ll very likely achieve it.
Brazil’s coach, Felipe Scolari, won the 2002 World Cup. What does he tell you about that?
He talks a lot about it. He says the World Cup is the toughest tournament. There’s no room for error, you must be at full speed from the get-go. It’s a short tournament where your margin of error is much smaller than in other matches. And he talks about the pleasure of winning, how good it feels. He’s certainly going to help us win another one.
During last year’s Confederations Cup, Brazilians protested against corruption, poor public services and the cost. A banner at one of the protests said, “A teacher is worth more than Neymar.” What’s your response?
I think the teachers’ salaries have to be valued like all the professions. I agree that all of us need to fight for better salary, better days, and a great world with education, health, and security.
Should Brazilians protest again at the World Cup?
I think we’ve already had the protests we needed, but I’m always for the protests. If it’s without violence, I don’t see any problem in people wanting to fight for a better country. I’m with the people. Now that the World Cup is happening, I think we have to enjoy it. We have this opportunity to show the world that we’re a country that can host any event, that can welcome any kind of person—everything that’s good about Brazil, not only the bad things.
Will Brazil win the World Cup?
It’s what I want.