Listen to this article
Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior — known simply as Neymar — has been handed a task that has historically proved to be beyond his countrymen: leading Brazil’s footballers to an Olympic gold medal.
Despite winning five World Cups, the country has faced 116 years of failure at the Olympics, the only major international football tournament it has not won. Worse still, arch-rivals Uruguay and Argentina have each twice won gold.
The wait for the Olympic title has become a national obsession — football is not only Brazil’s most popular sport but also one of the few Olympic events at which it competes at the top level. And as the games begin in Rio de Janeiro this week, with Brazil playing its first football match on Thursday, there is little attempt to disguise the team’s reliance on Neymar, its captain and one of the world’s best footballers.
“They say it’s not good to be dependent on Neymar, but I do not agree,” said Rogerio Micale, Brazil’s coach for the Olympics. “I would always have a Neymar in my team.”
Yet in a country that is in the midst of a political crisis, a deep recession and a corruption scandal, Neymar is also burdened with ending an on-field slump that has come to symbolise a sense of national decline.
Brazilians are still in shock over the country’s humiliating 7-1 defeat against Germany in the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup, which was also hosted by the Latin American country. The drubbing was described as the “the worst blackout in Brazil’s history” by commentator Galvao Bueno, the voice of football in the country.
“If we face Germany again people will be very tense,” said Rafael Martinez Pires, a 24-year-old advertising executive, adding that many were pinning their hopes on Neymar. “He’s a great player but he’s still very young — only 24 — and it’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure on him.”
In Brazil and beyond, Neymar’s talents on the pitch have won him superstar status. He is Brazil’s highest-earning sportsperson and one of world football’s most marketable names.
According to Forbes, Neymar earned $37.5m over the past year. While he enjoyed a salary of $14.5m from his club side, FC Barcelona, the majority of his earnings come from endorsing brands including Nike, Red Bull, Panasonic and Gillette.
While a devout evangelical Christian, he is known for his partying.
“I’m not a perfect guy but I like going out and having fun with my friends . . . I can and I will go to nightclubs,” he said during a press conference last week after losing his temper with a reporter. “If you were 24, and you had everything that I’ve earned and everything I have, wouldn’t you be the same?”
Neymar has also been dogged by allegations related to tax evasion. In February this year, a Brazilian judge ordered the seizure of his private jet, a luxury yacht and other goods worth R$192.8m (US$59m) after he was accused of using shell companies to avoid taxes, mostly relating to his career at the Brazilian team Santos between 2011 and 2013.
He was also at the centre of a separate case in Spain over alleged irregularities related to his transfer from Santos to Barcelona.
Neymar is contesting the Brazilian case, while Barcelona agreed to pay a €5.5m fine to settle the Spanish tax dispute.
Still, the forward’s presence at the games is a boon for the International Olympic Committee, the governing body for the games, for which football is an important money-spinner through ticket sales. Unlike other Olympic sports, matches are played around the country instead of being fixed within the host city, meaning they are able to attract a wider audience.
Yet last season it was unclear if Neymar would be included in the Brazilian squad as he found himself at the centre of a club-versus-country controversy. He made it to the games only after Barcelona agreed that he could participate in the Olympics if he missed the Copa America, a tournament between North and South American teams.
Few of the world’s other top players will appear at Olympics, with the football tournament deemed a sideshow to the rest of the games.
Although the women’s competition features full-strength teams, the men’s event mainly involves players aged under 23. Even a measure that allows nations to select three “over-aged” players — a fudge created to allow countries to pick some of their best footballers — is being undermined because clubs refuse to release players.
Not that Brazilians will care about the lack of competition should the team grab the elusive title.
“Losing never crosses my mind,” Neymar said. “I want to bring that gold medal for Brazil that has been so difficult.”
Get alerts on Olympic Games when a new story is published