It wasn’t until I was on a hill high above Rio de Janeiro during the 2014 World Cup that I realised just how much Neymar meant to Brazil. Not to the national team – that was already long since clear, given the role he had played for them in the opening round of the tournament and for several years before – but to the country itself. Yes, there was a huge emotional burden upon him, which was obvious from the extent to which he was idolised; a few days earlier, I had wandered down to the Copacabana beach to watch Brazil take on Mexico in a disappointing 0-0 draw, and from the thousands of Selecao shirts I saw I cannot remember one that did not bear Neymar’s name. But the pressure was financial too. Standing on that hillside, in a country house where a friend was due to play a gig that evening, I looked over to the venue’s owner who wore a look of naked and unrestrained terror.
I couldn’t blame the owner, though. Brazil and Chile had stumbled to a goalless draw in the second round of the World Cup, and a penalty shoot-out would therefore determine who would go through to the next stage. This, I presumed, was the reason for the owner’s panic: his nation, who were hosting the tournament and expected by many to win the whole thing, were in danger of being upstaged by their upstart siblings to the West. And my God, Chile had guts. They’d already overwhelmed Spain with a performance of eye-watering intensity, and now they were coming for the biggest scalp of all.
But, but: to get past Brazil, Chile had to get past Neymar, and that was their undoing. “Getting past Neymar” is one of those aims, like pressing Sergio Busquets or showing Arjen Robben onto his weaker foot, which is far easier in theory than in practice. And, as it turned out, Chile couldn’t do it: when the fateful moment came, Neymar sent his crucial penalty home, and sent his heartbroken rivals home with it.
The owner, as the room around him erupted in euphoria, almost collapsed in relief: a reaction I found surprising, until he explained. He had rented out several rooms of his private members’ club as a lucrative package deal, for wealthy Europeans who wanted to watch the last few games of the World Cup: the only catch was that the package deals, each worth many thousands of pounds, began from the quarter finals, and if Brazil hadn’t beaten Chile then there was no way his customers were getting on that plane to Rio. With one snap of his slender ankles, Neymar had thus saved and made him a small fortune.
Yet Neymar isn’t just the key economic engine of his national side; he has often been its soul. Ask anyone who was in Rio the night of the quarter-final against Colombia, when Brazil prevailed by two goals to one but where Neymar left the field before the end of the tie, felled by a high and late challenge from Juan Zuniga. Anyone will tell you of the mood that spread across the city, the silence that swept across each crowded room at a house party, as the news of their icon’s injury spread. Arriving at the home of my friends, two brothers whose parents had set up their own architecture firm, I was greeted with the simple forlorn sentence: “Neymar is out of the World Cup”. Too stricken with grief to say anything else, Mateus stepped slowly aside and let me into the flat.
“Getting past Neymar” is one of those aims, like pressing Sergio Busquets or showing Arjen Robben onto his weaker foot, which is far easier in theory than in practice. And, as it turned out, Chile couldn’t do it: when the fateful moment came, Neymar sent his crucial penalty home, and sent his heartbroken rivals home with it.
The quest for glory ended there, and the country knew it. When Germany eviscerated Brazil 7-1 in the next match, a game in which the hosts were five goals down within twenty-five minutes, they may as well have been kicking a carcass. Neymar’s absence had torn the roof from their shelter, and here they stood defenceless before the European typhoon.
Neymar makes for an unlikely guardian of the realm; with his variously styled haircuts and forest of tattoos, he looks far more like a surfer than a soldier. Yet there’s great bravery in surfers too, a profound resolve that goes beyond their casual exterior. After all, like Neymar, they go up against harrowing challenges, the scale of which would engulf ordinary mortals. In 2014, in the process of making “The Burden of Beauty”, a BBC World Service documentary about Brazil’s chances of winning the World Cup, I travelled to Santos, the home of one of Neymar’s earliest miracles – his capture of the club’s first Copa Libertadores in almost forty years, following in the footsteps of Pele. Speaking to the club’s psychologist, it was clear that Neymar’s mental state was as secure as scaffolding: she told of how he would wander along the beach before huge games, seemingly oblivious of the pressure that awaited. Adversity seemed to feed him. They still revered him down at Santos, too; when I asked for the wifi password, one of them briefly looked embarrassed, before revealing that it was “Neymar2011”.
Neymar meant so much to Brazil back then: possibly too much. I remember the opening game against Cameroon, when he scored the opening goal after seizing possession and driving forwards, almost in indignation. He took responsibility whilst others wilted, and surged where others succumbed. That’s why Brazil’s recent win over Germany in Berlin, a 1-0 triumph achieved in his absence, was so important: though the game was dull, a lacklustre affair decided by a close-range strike from Gabriel Jesus, the triumph was an important statement from Tite’s team. Four years after their humiliation by the eventual world champions, Brazil now have a team which can not only give Neymar the supporting cast he needs, but take the initiative when he is away from the fray. They are a canny, battle-hardened outfit, with Marcelo, Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino having entered the game’s stratosphere: thanks to them, Neymar is no longer the singular threat, the man going up against the wave alone. The mantle of saviour is one that he has borne for years, perhaps gladly; but now his load is far lighter, and his country’s rivals in Russia will be duly watchful.