On Friday evening, Brazil turned its lonely eyes to Neymar da Silva Santos Junior.
Surely it is not normal, all this hysteria. After all, Neymar is just a 22-year-old soccer player. And while a broken vertebra sounds like a dreadful thing, doctors say he’ll be up and walking around again in four to six weeks. No president has been assassinated, no child has died, no natural disaster has struck. So why all the fuss?
Because Neymar is not just a soccer player. In Brazil, Neymar is something much more.
One last caveat. The Neymar generally referred to in this text is the Neymar of Santos and of his early days with Brazil. The Neymar whose play was cheeky, imaginative and creative, at times irresponsible in its showmanship. Those qualities still remain, but since his move to Barcelona he has become more efficient, arguably more effective, stronger, more direct and disciplined. This is the Neymar most people see today – a fusion of Latin American individuality and European efficiency. When Brazilian soccer fans think of Neymar, however, they think of the younger, maverick Neymar.
But forget all the caveats.
Brazilians have been feeling blue since Friday not just because their best chance of winning the World Cup is now lying at home in Guarujá on the São Paulo coastline, watching the rest of the tournament on TV, but because Neymar represents Brazil in a way that no current member of the Brazilian soccer team – and not that many from the past either – represent Brazil.
It starts with that audacious style of play – the feints and dummies, the shimmies and nutmegs, the chapéus (literally meaning “hat,” in soccer the word means to flick the ball over an opponent’s head), the joy – Garrincha-esque – taken not just in winning, but in humiliating defenders, just a little, while doing it, and making the crowd gasp.
Marinho was echoing the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, who in 1938 wrote that “our style of football seems to contrast with the European style because of a set of characteristics such as surprise, craftiness, shrewdness, readiness and I shall say individual brilliance and spontaneity, all of which express our mulattoism. Our passes…our tricks…that something which is related to dance, to capoeira (the Afro-Brazilian mixture of dance and martial art), mark the Brazilian style of football, which rounds and sweetens the game the British invented, the game which they and the other Europeans play in such an acute and angular way.”
Soccer as art. Futebol-arte. The interesting thing is that no Brazilian soccer player ever thought about futebol-arte when out on the field, only writers and commentators. The soccer players, many of them poor, thought about futebol-showing off, or futebol-standing out from the crowd. Because showing off and standing out from the crowd got you noticed. Showing off and standing out from the crowd got you a contract.
Lots of Brazilians (particularly the more elevated social classes, natch) sigh and think about their country’s problems and look at the lives of their European and North American counterparts with envy. But when those European or North American counterparts come to Brazil and throw their hands up in horror at the informality of this or that aspect of life here, the Brazilian will laugh and say, “oh, you gringos, you’re all so uptight.”
Neymar, putting the ball through an opponent’s legs, pirouetting, even, on occasion, going back and beating an already humiliated opponent again just for the hell of it, has the jeitinho. Correction. Neymar doesn’t have the jeitinho. Neymar is the jeitinho. Neymar’s goal for Santos against a Flamengo side that included that other sorcerer of the dark arts of Brazilian soccer, Ronaldinho, in 2011, had the jeitinho written all over it.
The sly, almost bashful grin, the narrow eyes, constantly moving, rarely settling on any one thing for long, the quick, nervous movements, the slouch, those skinny legs - there is a little bit of the malandro in Neymar. If he had been born in Dickensian London, Neymar – the way he plays soccer at least - could be The Artful Dodger, pocketing an orange from a stall and melting invisibly into the crowd.
Which is where things get interesting. The malandro and the jeitinho are all mixed up in Brazil’s rich ethnic cocktail. “Every Brazilian, even the most lilywhite and golden haired, carries in his soul, if not his soul and his body...the color, or at least a hint of the color, of the indigenous people of the country, or the negro,” wrote Freyre in his masterpiece A Casa Grande e A Senzala (which translates as “The Big House and the Slave Quarters” but was renamed “The Masters and The Slaves” in its English language version) in the 1930s.
But Neymar is not a marginal. And he is only a little bit malandro. He is the good malandro. He is still the kind of guy a girl might want to take home to meet her mom. Her mom would probably want to feed him up a bit. In the end Neymar, with his coffee-colored skin that represents Brazil’s complex racial mix and politics, and his air of the jeitinho and the malandro, looks like Brazil - all that is good in it, and all that is bad in it.
Bad, for Neymar is not a saint. In 2010, when he was 18 and playing for Santos, and his reputation was already sky-rocketing and the money was rolling in, things looked to be getting out of control. In one game his coach, a good man named Dorival Júnior, told Neymar that he didn’t want him to take a penalty. Neymar unleashed an expletive filled torrent of abuse at his manager. When Dorival Júnior demanded that club directors suspend Neymar for his behavior, the board, terrified of upsetting their prize asset, fired the manager instead.
Lots of people don’t like Neymar. Particularly, in Britain, Freyre’s home of “acute and angular” soccer, where they say he dives too much and is selfish and is a cheat. But being a malandro is not encouraged in Britain. Nor is the jeitinho. Britain is all about the collective good and industriousness and fair play, none of which sound very jeitinho. Tough, outspoken English midfielder Joey Barton likes to call Neymar a show pony. To which Neymar would probably reply – better a show pony than a carthorse, Joey.
In any case, most of Neymar’s irresponsible and unpleasant behavior came a long time ago, and he has grown up considerably since then. He does not dive as much as he used to. He is a father now, and a leader on this Brazil team as much as captain Thiago Silva or braveheart zagueiro David Luiz.
In the end, Neymar remains a mix of all those things that Brazilians have and are proud of having or being, whether they know it or not. Like his way of moving and playing soccer that is a bit like dancing, and of laughing or looking like he is about to laugh almost all the time, and of being more open and personable than he has any right to be, given the pressure he is under.
And of course, being a bit jeitinho and a bit (but not too much) malandro. And all of these things have been somehow mixed together in such a way as to create a very good soccer player indeed. Someone who Brazilians can look at and go, 'Oh, look at him, he’s Brazilian like me,' as Brazilian as the musician Gilberto Gil or the songwriter Vinicius de Moraes or the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade or Ayrton Senna, or someone from the country’s rich lineage of soccer malandros, like Garrincha or Romario or Ronaldinho.
Someone who, in the end, could only ever be Brazilian.