A year from now, Brazilian soccer star Neymar will be one of the most popular athletes on the planet.
Since he was 17, the forward has attracted a lot of hype, but playing in the Brazilian League prevented him from getting worldwide appeal. So, like Paul George in the Eastern Conference Finals, Neymar strengthened his status by showcasing his talent to larger audiences, which he did mostly during international tournaments.
Now 21, his ceiling is closer to that of Kevin Durant’s. Clearly, the four years of tricks, flicks and amazing goals has paid off.
In May, he penned a big-money deal with Spanish giants Barcelona, one of the best clubs in the world. A couple weeks later, he balled out in the Confederations Cup, as Brazil’s 3-0 skewering of defending world champions Spain in the final, capped his fantastic tournament.
With Brazil hosting next year’s World Cup and fans feenin’ for a sixth championship, the country has big hopes for the floppy-haired trickster. Natives gush over Neymar’s steez. He has enough flair to be on the AND1 Mixtape Tour, sporting the “samba boy” swag that Brazil teams have had in the past. He’s become the centerpiece of a team that is carrying the nation’s hopes and expectations.
“I’m Brazilian and I love my country,” Neymar wrote on his Facebook page in reaction to the recent protests happening throughout the nation. “The only way I can represent and defend Brazil is on the pitch, playing football. From now on, I will enter the field inspired by this movement.”
Raised in the southern coast of São Paulo, Neymar (full name: Neymar da Silva Santos Junior) can relate to the struggle. While his parents grinded to put food on the table, he made his name on the streets as a child soccer prodigy. Santos FC took notice, signing the starlet in 2003, when he was 11. Arguably the most famous club in Brazil’s top division, they know a few things about great players. Pelé played his ball at Santos for almost 20 years.
Neymar debuted on the senior team in 2009, immediately garnering interest from former legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. He truly began to heat up in 2010, scoring 42 goals in 60 games for Santos. Later that year, 14,000 fans signed a petition to get him on the 2010 World Cup squad. It didn’t work, but the fan initiative showed that Neymar was becoming a big deal.
Soon, the Neymar sweepstakes began. The forward received offers from several big clubs in Europe, including Barcelona, Chelsea and Real Madrid. Naturally, the spike in popularity also led to an increase in cynicism. Detractors pegged Neymar as a skilled, yet selfish player.
The proof was there. In 2010, he went off on his manager for not allowing him to take a penalty kick he earned during a match, and responded by refusing to pass to his teammates for the rest of the game. Some believed Neymar wasn’t worth the attention he was getting, pointing out his disappearing act against Barcelona in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup.
It was one of the few times he didn’t perform on a big stage. On the national team, Neymar consistently comes through, bagging 24 goals in 39 appearances. Some of the best goals have come on big occasions, too; most recently, his stunner in the Confederations Cup Final.
“I am aware of the pressures but I’m doing what I love to do, so there’s no reason for me to feel pressured at all,” he said about playing for Brazil. “I turn this pressure into happiness, joy, and try to do my job well.”
Neymar will grab your attention with his silky handles, but bet that he’ll also make you remember him with his future achievements. When he joins forces with the world’s best in Lionel Messi and Barcelona next year, everyone will realize the true extent of his talent.