A few months ago, Neymar gave a rare interview to the Brazilian TV programme Globo Esporte, where he flatly refuted any link between his football career and his activities off the pitch. “I do not think that my social life hinders my performance on the pitch,” he said. “In fact, I even find it funny that what I do off the pitch gets compared with what I do on it. On the pitch, I can be questioned. You can talk about that. Away from the pitch, I will take care of myself. If I want to do it, I will do it. My life is mine.”
Often, Neymar interviews are about as enlightening as pig Latin. But here, this was a revealing insight into the Neymar worldview. What he appears to be saying here, in essence, is that the Neymar you see occasionally playing for Paris Saint-Germain in between ankle injuries is the only Neymar we are allowed to talk about. Everything else is his and his alone.
It’s worth bearing all this in mind as we navigate what has been – even by the standards of the Neymar-verse – a turbulent week. Last Friday, a woman called Najila Trindade accused him of raping her in a Paris hotel on 15 May. In an interview with SBT in Brazil, Trindade said she and Neymar met on Instagram, and he flew her out to Paris to meet her.
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At which point, she claims, things took an unexpected turn. She claimed that she was prepared to have consensual sex with Neymar, but demanded that he use a condom. She claims Neymar refused, became aggressive, and then attacked her. She claims she told him to stop, and that he refused. She described the incident as “an assault together with rape”. On Sunday, Neymar issued a video strongly denying the accusations against him, and describing the entire encounter as “a trap”.
When Neymar arrived at Barcelona in 2013, he brought five of his friends over with him from Brazil. By the time he moved to Paris in 2017, that had swelled to more than 30, each with a specific function: official photographer, social media curator, hairdresser. The inner circle live with Neymar in a mansion in Bougival, a western suburb of Paris, and are paid a healthy monthly stipend. According to NBA star Draymond Green, who met the player in Ibiza, the Neymar circus is “like a huge cult”.
Though the Neymar entourage are there partly for his own entertainment, and can often be found organising poker nights or making silly videos or playing video games with him, one of their main functions is as a sort of protection. Hermetically sealed in his party bubble, Neymar doesn’t need to worry about things like autograph-hunters, or journalists, or sorting his recycling into plastic and glass and cardboard. Neymar’s entourage sorts all that for him.
In a way, his job isn’t even to be a footballer, at least in the traditionally-understood sense. The vision of football in which you bury yourself for the team, run around putting in slide tackles, earn the grudging respect of Graeme Souness, write your name in the history books via trophies and medals, isn’t one that Neymar even necessarily subscribes to any more. A second Champions League would be nice. A World Cup or Ballon d’Or would burnish the brand beautifully. But for the most part, his job is simply to be ‘Neymar’: the omnipotent star of a carefully curated telenovela, complete with supporting cast, an endless series of attractive women and all the trappings of affluent youth.
It’s tempting to see Neymar as a sort of sporting Justin Bieber: the teen star suspended in the perpetual childhood that they were never quite allowed to finish, trapped in the excess their fame built around them. And on one level, there’s surely an argument to be made that Neymar plays his football, earns his money, and once he goes home can surely spend it on as many Victoria’s Secret supermodels as he sees fit. But there’s another side to all this, one that impinges on the wider world.
Because to focus on the hedonism of Neymar’s existence is to miss the point. In many ways, his career is like a sort of absurdist scientific experiment into the calculus of fame: the way it radiates in ever stronger waves, the way it turns everything around it into artifice, the way it converts the most fundamental building blocks of life itself – longing, aspiration, sex, sport, wealth, friendship – into stackable, made-for-television commodities. Of course your Mastercards and your Nikes are interested in Neymar the athlete. But what attracts them, above all, is the Neymar lifestyle: the aspirational worldview being sold to millions of young men around the world.
And so, when confronted with Trindade’s accusations last weekend, of course his first reaction was to go on Instagram and post a video describing himself as the victim of an “extortion”, sharing screenshots of a sexually explicit WhatsApp exchange and photographs of his correspondent in her underwear. (Instagram later took down Neymar’s video for violating its community rules.) And of course on Friday, when he visited a police station in Rio de Janeiro to make a statement, he also chose to address his fans as if he had just won a Grammy. “I want to say thank you for the well wishes,” Neymar said to his adoring public, “and say that I have felt very love.
Who, exactly, are these well-wishers? Well, among them has been Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, who lent his backing to Neymar, declaring: “I believe in him.” There has also been strong support for Neymar in some of the more filth-coated recesses of the internet, where Trindade’s reputation is already being merrily besmirched and traduced. Meanwhile, Trindade told BuzzFeed News that her apartment had been broken into and that she had been forced to move into a hotel.
Perhaps this is the logical culmination of player power: the abolition of the maximum wage in the 1960s, the Bosman ruling in the 1990s, Neymar skipping games for his sister’s birthday party in the 2010s. But of course there are wider trends at work here, too: the cult of celebrity worship, the rapacity of the mass media, the rise of the footballer not just as sporting hero but as devotional icon. And so, here we are, at a point where one of the most gifted footballers in the world is essentially a 24-hour reality television spectacular: doing stepovers for the benefit of the Qatari royal family, injuring himself in meaningless friendlies, defending himself against accusations of rape. It might not be your cup of tea. But by gosh, you can’t argue with the ratings.