It is a mark of Neymar’s versatility as a brand vehicle that he has been able to lend his commercial presence to such a wide range of products, from Neymar-approved financial services, to the selection of a Neymar-endorsed bacterial mouthwash partner. This portfolio has raked in at least €100m since his move to Europe. It might also – among other things – go some way to explaining why so many people seem to dislike him; and dislike him to such an extreme degree.
Admittedly some of these tie-ins are a better fit than others. The car battery campaign still seems jarring, with its central portrait of Neymar in sleek tailored overalls, eyes bright, cheekbones clenched, clutching a fresh battery to his chest in sexy-determined-mechanic mode.
Cheers for that Neymar. I might just have a look at the place under the railway arches.
The perfume ads work better. Neymar obviously smells nice, or at least in a way that is striking and aspirational. Neymar smells of cinnamon, gold and hand-cured calfskin upholstery. He smells of jet fumes and human avarice. He smells of the heather-scented bidet seal in the unused rooftop suite of a new-build seven-star private island hotel.
The same goes for Tenys Pé Baruel, “the world’s the No 1 foot deodorant” – Neymar’s feet are made of sherbet and hummingbird bones – and for the denim campaigns, the underwear gigs. This is Neymar’s world, the daily grind of a lifestyle vessel, a man who is essentially two parts baseball cap.
Perhaps the main consequence of this commercial ubiquity is a kind of disorientation. Why do people hate Neymar so much? There are some obvious reasons. On-pitch theatrics. Hairstyle stuff. The gaudiness of his public persona. Let’s face it, Neymar is ticking a lot of boxes here. It is the extreme nature of the Neymar rage that stands out, to the extent it is hard to name another elite athlete who has been so roundly dismissed, talents scorned, simply because people don’t like them.
That feeling of waste seems key to this. Neymar was supposed to be something pure and uplifting, a player so good it was easy to coo and gush and lose yourself in his feather-footed brilliance. Aged 28, his career has become synonymous with lost years, with human potential relentlessly commodified, from his own commercial machine to the decision to see out his peak years in the plastic glamour of Paris Saint-Germain.
It is a question that seems particularly urgent given Neymar’s performance against Atalanta this week in the Champions League. Neymar was rusty. PSG were poor. And yet there was enough to suggest he might just – with all due deference to the supernatural powers of late-stage Lionel Messi – be the best all-round attacking player in the world.
Sorry! But it’s true. Even if nobody seems ready to get their head around this just yet, not when it goes so violently against the narrative of flash-laden waste, a trope that was present in the BT Sport panel discussion before the Atalanta game. The studio dynamic was interesting in itself. Glenn Hoddle, an interesting and fair-minded analyst, entered this forum with what seemed like a set idea. Neymar was, as they say, not for him. Rio Ferdinand was more pliable, full of love for Neymar’s brilliance, a man who really does like skilful footballers, but influenced by Glenn’s air of frowning caution, qualifying his praise.
In the middle of which some well-worn received ideas were trotted out. False principle No 1: Neymar is flighty and lazy. “At Barcelona he was consistent. He’s never got back to that level … He can afford to down tools and just chill out a bit.”
False principle No 2: Neymar fears the big occasion and is mentally weak. “He still has flashes but it’s about doing it consistently and in these big moments.”
Shall we do this? Point one doesn’t survive even a five-second peek at Wikipedia. Neymar is, in fact, remarkably consistent. He has 70 goals and 40 assists in 83 PSG appearances. He has 14 goals and eight assists in 18 Champions League games for them. In fact something more interesting is happening here. Whatever career wrong turns he may have taken, Neymar remains an absolute footballing machine.
As for point two, well this also collapses in the face of facts. PSG have lost knockout ties. But Neymar hasn’t been present when it happened. In 2018 he was injured for the second leg of the defeat to Real Madrid. In 2019 he missed both games against Manchester United. This season he’s played three knockout ties, scored two in the win over Borussia Dortmund and produced a performance described by L’Équipe as “a masterpiece” while dragging PSG to their first semi in 25 years. So, the opposite of all that, then.
To be fair to Glenn and Rio there was magnanimity at the end (“He kept going … The great players keep going”) and a celebration of what they’d just seen. This is the other thing about Neymar. He may play for a soft-power project club. He may wear a solid gold bowler hat and travel by fur-lined helicopter gunship. He may have a set of annoying mannerisms. But to watch him live is to see the complete attacking footballer, not just “the best passer in the world” (source: Kylian Mbappé) but a player blessed with speed, finishing skills, vision and the urge to keep trying to win in every minute of every game.
The word from Paris is the PSG players are talking openly now about Neymar’s air of destiny, his total conviction that they can win this midsummer knockout. Welcome, hubris! But with two games to go it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. More likely, or at least more desirable, perhaps the world might just learn to take a little more unfiltered pleasure in what is, without prejudice, one of the great modern talents.