The brilliant Brazilian's displays last season suggested he was ready to step out of Messi's shadow and become the new King of the Camp Nou. But PSG landed the 25-year-old, who owes it all to late-night sarnies, leading from the front... and one very lucky lemon.
Forty years ago in a galaxy far, far away, Obi-Wan Kenobi had a choice: stand and fight, or allow Darth Vader to kill him. The Jedi master knew the only way to ensure the escape of his maturing apprentice – Luke Skywalker – and lead the Rebel Alliance to destroy the Death Star was to shoulder arms. He was swiftly lightsabered in half.
At 10.46pm on March 8, 2017, Lionel Messi – Barcelona’s very own extraterrestrial Jedi master – had his Star Wars moment. Los Cules still needed two injury-time goals to achieve the impossible and overturn a 4-0 first-leg defeat against Paris Saint-Germain in order to reach the Champions League quarter-finals – and they had just won a penalty. The remontada, the comeback, had to be maintained.
Messi and Neymar stood in the Camp Nou penalty area. The master had already converted once from the spot, but it was the presumptive heir’s curling free-kick just three minutes earlier which had injected life into a twitching Catalan corpse. “As long as there is 1% of chance,” Neymar had said before the game, “we’ll show 99% of faith.” In a desert of Barça banalities, there was a lone voice of belief.
There was only hope because of Neymar, and Messi knew it. This was a watershed moment. Messi has never before ceded such responsibility, but so inevitable was Neymar’s finish – and his glorious dinked assist for Sergi Roberto’s tie-clincher moments later – that the Argentine knew destiny was with another. He was passing the baton – or that's how it should have been anyway.
“Neymar proved he is more than Messi’s heir,” wrote AS. “He believed when no one else believed and produced when no one else produced.”
For the goals, for the opposition and for the difficulty of the situation, this is the best game I have played in my life
“For the goals, for the opposition and for the difficulty of the situation, this is the best game I have played in my life,” said the 25-year-old at full-time, with Barça having won 6-5 on aggregate. “I’ve spent the last week crazy for this night to arrive. Nothing is impossible – I told you.”
It was the performance Neymar had threatened since his 2013 move from Santos, but hadn’t delivered when Barcelona needed it most. After Christmas he was arguably the best player in the world, delivering goals, assists and countless man-of-the-match displays.
The bloodless revolution on that spring night; the beginning of “Neymar’s consecration”, as one Spanish newspaper put it, will now continue in Paris – and it’s all down to a lifetime’s hard work on the streets, 3am sandwiches on the beach, protein shakes... and one lucky lemon.
“If you lose a second, the ball is gone”
He soon graduated to the streets of Sao Vicente, where the tightly packed favela roads reverberated to the sound of a stick-legged and rake-thin Neymar honing his technique
If Neymar’s display against PSG proved one thing beyond reasonable doubt, it’s that the forward has something to which few other Barça players could lay claim to – dominance in one-on-one situations. While his Blaugrana colleagues preferred to prod and probe in front of serried opposition ranks, Neymar’s modus operandi is to commit defenders – and he picked it up at an early age.
Born in February 1992 in Mogi das Cruzes, a satellite town 40km east of Sao Paulo, Neymar da Silva Santos Junior’s early days were defined by football. He grew up idolising his dad, Neymar Sr, who was a professional for a number of middling clubs around Sao Paulo state.
By the time he had turned nine years old, ‘Juninho’ – as the family still call him – had 54 footballs in the room that he was sharing with his parents and sister Rafaela at his grandparents’ house, and could only sleep scrunched in a corner on a mattress.
“There was a small space between the mattress and the wardrobe, and it was in this narrow corridor that I used to play,” he wrote in his autobiography. Sometimes his sister and his cousin Jennifer would join in – but only as de facto goalposts. “They stood as obstacles and sometimes even wore jerseys so I could pretend it was a real match. I’d spend hours dribbling around them, learning to control the ball in a tight environment, just me against them.”
He soon graduated to the streets of Sao Vicente, where the tightly packed favela roads reverberated to the sound of a stick-legged and rake-thin Neymar honing his technique. Right foot, left foot. Repeat.
“I would wake up wanting to play football,” he tells FourFourTwo in an exclusive sit-down. “As soon as I arrived home from school, I would go straight outside and stay there until it got dark. I had a very happy childhood with my friends, and playing on the streets helped me – that fast game and that Brazilian smartness.”
As soon as I arrived home from school, I would go straight outside and stay there until it got dark
Ironically, Neymar first arrived into the wider public consciousness without a ball at his feet. It was late in 1998 and his father had just missed a penalty for Recanto de la Villa in their game against Tumiaru, but the six-year-old sprinting up and down the stand’s steps caught the eye of Betinho, a scout for local futsal clubs.
“He ran effortlessly – as though he was running on the flat – and his fitness, agility and co-ordination made an impression on me,” Betinho, who now works for Santos, later recalled. “I looked over at the father: he was well built and had good control. I looked at Nadine: she was tall and thin. Neymar’s parents were fine biological specimens. This made me wonder how the little ’un would play football.”
Betinho was right to wonder. Neymar had what Brazilians call jeito – an aptitude, an outrageous talent, for football. He moved as if dancing samba, or capoeira – a Brazilian martial art that combines combat with dance and music – so Betinho took his protégé to Portuguesa Santista, a local amateur team that had futsal in its blood.
“Futsal is to blame for how I play,” chuckles Neymar, a smile forming across his face as he remembers the early years spent on indoor wooden courts perfecting his technique in small-sided games. “It has developed my technique, quick thinking and short moves. Futsal is fundamental to a footballer’s life. It had a big importance in mine.
“When you’re out there playing, you’re forced to think fast and move even faster – if you lose a second, then the ball will be gone. It’s a more dynamic game, and as there isn’t much space in the games that I play for Barça. You need to react quicker on the field.”