If Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi has anything in common with Crash Davis—if there’s any sort of cultural crossover between the archetypes of global sports glitz and minor league baseball grime—it’ll show itself when the tape recorder starts rolling. That’s when the icons in their posh private jets heed the wisdom Davis imparted on a bumpy bus, whether they’ve seen Bull Durham or not. “You’re gonna have to learn your clichés,” Crash says in the 1988 classic. “They’re your friends.”
The galácticos have little choice but to follow this advice. Combine the fanaticism surrounding global soccer with the minimal access afforded the media covering it, and you have an environment where every crumb becomes content, where innuendo is louder than insight, where the tiniest spark can become a bombshell. In short: The less said the better; be safe, not sorry. So it’s significant, then, that in the middle of what should be the most relaxing summer of his adult life, Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. is willing to let you in, share his concerns and maybe even make a headline. He can’t hide from who he is, nor from the momentous, legacy-defining season to come.
The quiet but charismatic 25-year-old Brazilian forward has never won a World Cup. He has never been named FIFA’s player of the year. And if he remains at FC Barcelona (which was up in the air as of Monday; if he’s not in Paris a week from now, it will be a surprise), he will have to wait a bit longer until he’s even considered his own team’s centerpiece. But he’s universally deemed soccer’s best player after Ronaldo and Messi, and he’s beloved in a way that neither of them ever will be. And a big reason for that is his indifference to the Book of Crash.
Neymar can’t fake it. He’s not packaged, and he’s not a product—and as a result, he sells lots of them: Nike, Gillette, Panasonic, Beats by Dre. In 2013 he was named the most marketable athlete in the world by SportsPro and Eurosport. In January he was ranked the most valuable player on the European transfer market by Switzerland’s CIES Football Observatory. And in April he was the only footballer on TIME’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. (“I’ve always been struck by his humility,” David Beckham wrote for TIME. “He’s respectful and wants to learn…He lives to play the game, and I imagine he approaches it now the same way he did as a boy.”)
Neymar says he can’t explain his inclusion on that list—and then he tries to do just that: “Maybe because I’m an athlete or maybe because I do a lot of things on social media. But I don’t know. I don’t like to talk about myself. I try to be a good role model for my son, my family, my friends, and then I try to be a good role model for the rest of the people, too. … I try to be myself without being anything different. I’m only one Neymar—for my family, for the public. I’m always the same person.”
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When Neymar acknowledges that, yes, the next 12 months, climaxing with the World Cup in Russia, will probably be “the toughest season of my life,” he believes it. The world will read those words and discuss and dissect them, and then they’ll become even more true. The spotlight is about to get even brighter, and Neymar, who’s been soccer’s next big thing for nearly a decade, will have to confront his destiny.
In another photo the 5’ 9″ Brazilian stood on a chair and playfully lorded over 6’ 7″ Draymond Green. Neymar enjoys being around famous and accomplished people—he reunited with Green in Ibiza last month—not because of how it reflects on him but because he’s a fan, genuinely in awe of what they can do.
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In the last year he performed a short, silly scene in which he juggles a napkin holder in Vin Diesel’s most recent Xander Cage movie—a role only for the athlete who doesn’t take himself too seriously—and kicked a ball across Hollywood Boulevard on Jimmy Kimmel Live! He’s joined musicians onstage, singing and dancing at concerts back home.
Neymar has a piano at his house in Spain—it was there when he moved in, he says, and he has been teaching himself to play with YouTube videos—but at an L.A. photo shoot for this story it takes some convincing to get the man watched by tens of millions every weekend to tap out even a simple a tune on a rented grand. He sits, gets up and wanders a bit before settling back in. Songs are suggested. How about Barcelona’s club anthem, “El Cant del Barça”? A Nike marketing rep asks that the studio’s ambient music be turned up, not down, so Neymar might feel a bit less scrutinized. He’s not an action figure to be played with. He’s human; he gets nervous. He says he felt it when he met Michael Jordan in Las Vegas and when he lined up to take what would be the winning penalty kick in the Olympic gold medal game last summer in Rio. Before the confidence bubbled up at the penalty spot, he admits, he endured the “worst sensation—all of the responsibility is on you.”
The Olympics play a distant second fiddle to the World Cup, but that U-23 tournament stubbornly remained the one international competition Brazil hadn’t won. And with the 2016 Games being contested on home soil two years after World Cup humiliation (also at home), Brazil named Neymar one of its three over-age players. He delivered, scoring four goals in six matches and converting that gilded penalty against Germany. Neymar was in tears almost immediately. For him, delivering the final piece of Brazil’s trophy puzzle was an immense achievement. For the public that adores him, however, it’s still not enough.
“It was like the Yankees finishing with the best record in the regular season: O.K., that’s kind of cool, but they measure everything around here by World Cup championships,” says Brian Winter, a Texan who co-wrote Pelé’s 2014 autobiography and who now runs Americas Quarterly, a political, business and cultural journal covering Latin America. As Reuters’ chief correspondent in Brazil for five years, he knows well how the nation’s sports, economics and politics intersect; he was living in São Paulo when Germany dismantled the hosts 7–1 in the ’14 Cup semifinals. That game in Belo Horizonte, he says, marked “the start of a long descent into hell for Brazil,” which has been reeling from financial and political crises since.
Neymar’s penalty and Olympic gold offered only temporary respite. “It was cool for, like, a day,” says Winter. “It created the sensation that hosting the Games hadn’t been a total waste. But once the lights went off, it was so clear that all of the promises linked to the Olympics—improved policing, infrastructure—had fallen short.” Brazilians, he says, are “desperately hoping for a reason to be happy in 2018. And so often—maybe too often—Brazilian soccer and politics mix.”
So the nation turns to Neymar. Four years after the misery of the so-called Mineirazodrubbing by Germany, which Neymar missed with a fractured vertebra suffered in a quarterfinal Thunderdome match against Colombia, Brazil has a viable shot at redemption in Russia. The 7–1 stain will never go away, but this World Cup will feature Neymar in his prime, shouldering the hopes of a country desperate for a reversal in fortune. This is the season in which it all could turn around. The season in which Neymar might finally fulfill his promise.
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“Everybody wants that Neymar be the protagonist in the World Cup,” says Ricardo Kaká, the Orlando City midfielder who was part of Brazil’s 2002 title-winning team (and who, incredibly, is the last man other than Ronaldo or Messi to be crowned world player of the year—10 years ago). “This is unfair sometimes, but it’s also because of who he is as a player, for his potential, how he can decide a game, how he’s a protagonist in Barcelona. There is going to be pressure on him.”
Kaká explains: “The first games, Brazil didn’t play so good, everyone was criticizing Brazil—and he was the most important player. He tried speaking with the press, and then I said to him, ‘Now as a player we have a very good opportunity to answer without saying; we have the field to [show that] we care and that the situation is important to us.’ In the end he won the Olympics, and that was the best answer he could give.”
The members of the group, Kaká says, believe Neymar is “very smart to understand that these guys can give him something different, something that could help.”
Brazil needs Neymar because, increasingly, Brazil is Neymar. Though rocked by recessions and political scandals, the nation has seen massive gains made by the nascent middle class over the past couple of decades. For years, socioeconomic classes “often resembled castes,” Winter says. There were five—A through E—and it’s the C that’s been on the rise.
C is roughly where you would have found a young Neymar. The son of a journeyman pro player, he wasn’t impoverished growing up on the southern fringe of the São Paulo megalopolis, but his family didn’t have much either, and making ends meet was a chore. Now Neymar takes in some $37 million per year (more of it from endorsement deals than from Barcelona), according to Forbes. He’s living the modern Brazilian dream.
“Neymar has the deepest connection with the people of Brazil of any soccer player of this generation, particularly with the rising middle class,” Winter says. “The way he talks, his street-wise charm—he appeals to that segment. He’s the best pitchman in a generation.”
That appeal also dovetails with the millennial generation. Neymar is a master of social media. His image isn’t meticulously crafted or self-celebratory like Ronaldo’s; it’s not homey or reticent like Messi’s. That video of Neymar playing soccer in a backyard with Justin Bieber is more effective than anything a consultant might stage. It’s organic and honest, a window into Neymar’s effortless cool.
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He’s fashionable. And he’s got a wonderfully wry sense of humor. “Social media tends to ferret out the phonies,” Winter says. “People love watching for their idols to show a glimpse of insincere behavior—but you really don’t see it from him.”
There’s a 2011 video of a 19-year-old Neymar in the locker room at his old Brazilian club, Santos, in which he dances and sings and thrusts along to Michel Teló’s cover of “Ai Se Eu Te Pego.” The more sighs and eye rolls Neymar gets from teammates in the video, the more committed he becomes.
He’s comfortable, unvarnished and fearless in the moment—the sort of person anyone with spunk or spirit would like to be around. The clip has more than 25 million views, and Neymar has 78 million followers on Instagram, making his account the 14th-most popular in the world, a hair above Messi’s.
Ronaldo has more, but Google “CR7 dancing” and among the first few hits are clips of the Portuguese star gyrating in a pink bathing suit in front of a crowd in Ibiza and another of him cavorting on a private plane. Search “Messi dancing” and you’ll find videos of the Argentine and his wife. There’s no better illustration of the differences among the three men.
Kaká certainly sees it. “Neymar just tries to be himself,” he says. “What’s in your character [takes] you where you want to go. Messi is a little bit shy, so he wants to be more out of the light. Cristiano wants to be not just a soccer player, but also a celebrity. There’s not a rightway, it’s just a choice. Neymar is the nice guy who wants to be everywhere, but he’s humble and simple. When he takes a picture with Kevin Durant, it’s: ‘This is the man, not me.’”
The soccer-loving world may worship now at the feet of Messi and Ronaldo, but that’s humanity’s appreciation for the divine and incomprehensible. Messi plays as if there are fireworks attached to his boots—the ball moves so quickly from one side of his foot to the other that it seems to occupy two places simultaneously. He’s all controlled chaos, staccato soccer. He is a savant, essentially, who doesn’t seem to be truly comfortable anywhere but on a field, and he’s been the driving force behind a three-time European champion that’s arguably the greatest side the sport has ever seen.
If Messi is from Mars, then Ronaldo hails from Mount Olympus. He’s like one of us but better, perfected. He plays like the physical specimen he is: with strength, power and panache. He’s more attractive than the statues of him. If Neymar markets to the C class, Ronaldo aims his CR7 brand, with its underwear and fragrances, at those in the A+. The guy has not only an airport but a galaxy named after him.
Yet for all their supernatural prowess, neither Messi nor Ronaldo is as adored in his homeland as Neymar is in Brazil. Argentines and Portuguese may look up to their respective icons, but Neymar prefers to look you in the eye.
Asked if he’s a little bit Ronaldo and a little bit Messi, Neymar says, “I think I’m like that. Sometimes I’m a little flamboyant, an extrovert. Sometimes I’m quiet.”
Whether he’s their peer is less important to the soccer world than whether he’s their successor. The Messi-Ronaldo duopoly has combined to win six FIFA Club World Cups, eight Champions League titles and a boatload of other honors. But Messi is 30, Ronaldo 32. Next summer’s World Cup will be the last for each man in his prime. At some point, it must be Neymar’s turn.
The Brazilian says that FIFA’s player of the year award is “very important” (Crash Davis wouldn’t like that answer), but he shrugs when asked if and when he’ll break through. “Everything happens in the right time,” he says. “The main focus is to keep playing well, keep winning games, and when the time is right, I’ll get mine.” (I’ll get mine—that wouldn’t pass the Crash test either.)
He attracts attention in other ways. His play, like his demeanor, borrows a bit from both Messi and Ronaldo. But whereas Messi slices and Ronaldo surges, Neymar glides. He’s smoother and more efficient than either, outstanding with both feet and blessed with the creativity and vision of his great Brazilian predecessors. But his game, like his personality, is more accessible. Train long enough and hard enough, and maybe you, too, could play like Neymar. He’s human, mortal, and he speaks with a voice the next generation understands.
This is where Paris Saint-Germain enters the picture. The powerhouse French club was always going to feature in Neymar’s story, thanks to an astonishing Champions League round-of-16 series that will live forever in the lore of both PSG and FCB. Last season was a tough one by Barcelona’s standards, and its puzzling lack of ruthlessness was exposed in a 4–0 first-leg Valentine’s Day massacre at the Parc des Princes. Neymar says he was embarrassed by the performance, and he corroborates the story that he promised friends he’d net two goals in the March 8 decider at the Camp Nou—which he ultimately did, in the 88th and 91st minutes, before setting up Sergi Roberto’s clincher in a 6–1 thriller.
On a team as loaded as Barça, there aren’t many moments when a player can and must take command. But with his European season on the line Neymar was unstoppable, and for many it seemed like a turning point on his climb to soccer’s summit. In TIME, Beckham wrote that it would “be remembered as the moment he stepped up to take on the mantle of best player in the world. Neymar is ready to make his move.
But as July came to a close, it appeared more and more likely that move might take him away from Messi and back to Paris, where PSG was looking for a way to finance the payment of his record $261 million release clause. Yes, Neymar would have to wait for Barcelona to become his team—but if and when it did, then his team would be Barcelona. If he leaves for PSG, he will join a lesser league and a club that has the cash but not the chemistry to make a deep Champions League run. In NBA terms he’d be moving from the Warriors to the Clippers. And instead of Durant, whose desire to win trumped his need to be the man—as Neymar’s did when he left Santos for Barcelona in 2013—the Brazilian would be channeling Kyrie Irving, itching to get out from under LeBron James’s shadow.
Asked which of his two favorite NBA players he identifies with more—James, who was raised in the spotlight, or Steph Curry, who came up quietly at Davidson, mirroring Neymar’s lower-profile beginnings—Neymar chooses LeBron. Let us not forget, then, James’s ultimate decision to break from the Big Three after winning superteam trophies in Miami. In order to be soccer’s biggest name, perhaps Neymar has to shine further away from Messi, Luis Suárez and Barcelona’s band of superstars.
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If he ultimately stays in Spain, Neymar must launch his assault on Messi and Ronaldo while improving on his own 13-goal La Liga campaign and helping steer Barça back to the top under new coach Ernesto Valverde. Last season’s results and the upcoming World Cup apply pressure from both sides. But Messi and Suárez relieve it, at least on the club side. Neymar doesn’t have to be the best player every time he steps onto the Camp Nou field. He’ll have to be more impactful, but he can do so while remaining true to himself. He’ll have some leeway.
If he goes to PSG, he’ll be paid like a king and expected to inspire a desperate club that hasn’t advanced beyond the Champions League quarterfinals since 1995. He’ll have the headlines and the billboards to himself. When those are shared, knocking a ball around with Bieber endears you to fans. When they’re yours alone, a Bieber moment may raise questions of focus, maturity or leadership. There will be no outlets at PSG, no excuses. Either way, he’ll also have to prepare mentally and physically for the rigors of a must-win World Cup.
But it’s all manageable. It always has been—so believes the man with LIFE IS A JOKE tattooed across his left biceps. He was Brazil’s Olympic talisman, and he was thriving at the 2014 World Cup before getting hurt. “We only have one life, so we have to figure out a way to be happy,” Neymar says. “Don’t take it so seriously. That’s pretty much it. Enjoy your life.”
Neymar’s relationship with his homeland remains strong. Not even the court cases concerning his controversial 2013 transfer to Barcelona have dented his reputation. In July, he was cleared of tax evasion in Brazil; a Spanish investigation is ongoing. (“Tax evasion,” Winter points out, “is next to soccer as the national sport in Brazil.”) Neymar’s countrymen, meanwhile, remain grateful for the gold medal and for his staying with Santos as long as he did. His Q rating is unscathed.
The only thing that could hurt him at home is, of course, failure to win in Russia. After he was forced to watch the semifinal rout by Germany while recuperating, Neymar told his fellow Brazilians, “We are going to do all we can so that I can fulfill my dream. My dream is to be the champion of the world.”
Three years later he’s asking for help. “I want to win a World Cup,” he says, “but it’s not only me, you know? There are other factors. There are teammates. There are a lot of things going on.” He’s certainly right, if the Mineirazo was any indication. But then he concludes, “I think you can be a legend without winning a World Cup.”
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Maybe, but not in Brazil. Sócrates and Zico, for example, were great players and remain well respected. Many pundits think their 1982 squad, which lost to eventual champion Italy in the second round, was better than the ’94 side, which won it all. But on a team with five stars on its jersey, the bar is so much higher. “If Neymar doesn’t win at least one World Cup, as much as people love him today, he will be forgotten,” says Winter. “Brazil isn’t short of epic personalities who’ve won World Cups.”
Neymar tries to make light of the pressure. “It’s very normal,” he says. “The thing is, if you win a World Cup, they’ll tell you that if you want to be the best, you have to win anotherWorld Cup! When you’re one of the top players, this is going to happen all the time.”
Perhaps it has all felt routine until now. But the next 12 months, whether he’s in Barcelona or Paris, will be anything but ordinary. A new chapter is beginning, and while the end is uncertain, it’s sure to be blessedly free of clichés.