World Cup 2014: Neymar, with the ball that God gave the Brazil striker

Ian Herbert discovers the humble background of Brazil’s new golden boy, visiting Santos, the famous club that developed Pele before him

The journey in search of the roots of Neymar da Silva Santos – the golden son of Brazil, feted from the depths of the favelas to the ivory towers of academia – reveals the terribly fine line between those few who make it big in football here and the pitiful despair of those who are left behind.

It takes you south-east, out beyond the teeming metropolis of Sao Paulo, and it is after only a mile or so that the endless expanse of the Diadema favela looms into view. Then come the tiny flats – a few hundred square metres at best – into which a despised government is cramming the slightly less impoverished. It is beyond the Guarapiranga reservoir and the forest of the Serra do Mar that a stinking swamp they call the Mange is reached, with men on the roadside touting crabs they have fished from its depths.

The boy who has made this journey a million times was being celebrated yesterday like never before. “It’s all ours,” the front of one of the Sao Paulo dailies proclaimed above a picture of the 22-year-old who rescued the nation from ignominy against Croatia. But the boy’s father, Neymar Snr, knew all about the narrow margins between this life and something better.

He moved his family into a room of his parents’ house in Sao Vicente, a seaside town near here, around the time of his only son’s birth because he was struggling to feed and clothe his young family. It is why he wanted to get him into the local club, Portuguesa Santista, who would secure him a private education, and why, when the 13-year-old had joined Santos, he urged him to stay through his teens and develop. Most footballers in Brazil earned less than 1,000 reals a month (£264) when his son’s career began. Playing the game offers no guarantee of escape in this vast land.

Neymar said he enjoyed a 'dream' start to the tournament after scoring twice  

The Santos club’s humble Vila Belmiro stadium – where the peeling black-and-white paint does not befit a crucible which was home to Pele too – reveals why Brazilian footballers have been an export commodity for years. It does not take long to see that the strength of his parents influenced Neymar’s decision to stay here nine years, and that they drummed humility into him too. That much is evident from Caroline Piedade, one of the club’s young marketing staff, whose roles included asking him to appear in club videos. “You never had to beg,” she says. “He was never moody. There wasn’t an ego. He wanted to help us.”

His coaches found the same equanimity in him. Through a translator, one coach who handled him as a teenager tells me that the problems he encountered with teenage boys over the years never belonged to Neymar. “The parents,” he says, to the question why this one might have been so different. “The background always matters a great deal.” Neymar lived with his family for much of his time here and for years caught the bus up to the training ground.

 

His slight physique was seen as the problem. “We involved a nutritionist from Sao Paulo,” says the coach. “There was a concern that even though he might be able to beat anyone on the field for talent, when he reached the older age range he would not be able to fight his way through situations.”

There were also entreaties to the young man to stop eating junk food. “He’d eat everything,” said the coach, one of many here reluctant to take the player’s limelight. “Burgers, the lot. We had to ask him to stop at 15 and he did.”

What Santos gained from the jewel in their crown is written through the club’s modest Memorial de Conquistas museum, which has Neymar and Pele at its heart. Metal sculptures of two icons stand face to face – Neymar’s in glittering aluminium with the mohican in bronze. The sculpture captures him poised, the ball at his left foot, about to take it forward with the velocity which the coach says surpasses anyone seen here over the years. He does not alter that assessment when Pele’s name is thrown into the equation.

In another corner of the room, a 30-second clip playing on continuous loop in the Neymar display panel reveals the speed in practice. It is the goal – the 63rd of his Santos career – which won him the Puskas Award for the world’s best finish in 2011: a surging blend of abilities which takes him from the left touchline and past five men before clipping the ball past the Flamengo goalkeeper. Marvellous though the skill might be, it is the strength that keeps him on his feet in the final surge which is most incredible: testament to the weight training they put him through here while the dieticians were doing their work. To adapt a quote used to annotate the adjacent image of Pele: “There goes Neymar, with the ball that God gave him.”

At every level of Brazilian life, they are now analysing the nature of talent. Luca Caioli’s fine Neymar biography includes an explanation of his specialness from Jose Miguel Wisnik, the Brazilian musician, composer and professor of literature. “In a time when no one believes a poetic tradition exists and that it is disappearing even in Brazil due to a tendency to play football prose, along comes Neymar,” Wisnik says. “He is a poet, a graffiti artist: his sonnets are daubed all over the city’s walls. His hair, his way of putting his shirt collar up and his celebrations are all part of the poetic performance.”

Most Brazilians do not intellectualise it in that way. The morning papers they were selling on the Santos street corners yesterday simply gave thanks for the boy’s rescue act. “Vitoria Suada” – “a victory we sweated on” – read another headline. Driving home to the coast last night, past Diadema and the stench of the swamp, Neymar’s family simply gave thanks that it had all turned out this way.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam