Brazil are still living in the Neymarverse - and that's exactly how they like it (2024)

When it comes to Neymar and the Brazil national team, the temptation — for the casual observer, at least — is to assume that we’re now firmly into epilogue territory.

Neymar is 32 years old. He moved from Paris Saint-Germain to Saudi Arabian side Al Hilal in August last year, embracing near irrelevance at club level. He suffered a bad knee injury nine months ago and has not played since. Even before that, he had appeared a fading force in physical terms, that lovely gazelle spring of his early years a distant memory.


In international football, meanwhile, there has been a changing of the guard. Fifteen players have made their senior Brazil debuts since Neymar’s most recent cap, which came against Uruguay in October. Endrick, the Real Madrid-bound 17-year-old, is his nation’s new darling. Rodrygo is wearing the No 10 shirt and Vinicius Junior is the player the Brazilian public clings to in moments of peril.

Game over, then? Have we reached the end of the Neymar era?

Not a bit of it. Look a little closer and you will still find significant overlap between the Brazil roadshow and the Neymarverse. To misquote Mark Twain, the rumours of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

For one thing, Neymar has just been an extremely visible non-playing presence at this Copa America so far.

He was in Los Angeles at the same time as the Brazil squad, doing rehab work at the same training complex they were using and posing for photos with Marquinhos, Vinicius Jr and Raphinha. After two commercial obligations — a Puma event and a poker tournament — he visited the team hotel on the morning of their opening group match against Costa Rica.

Neymar watched that game at LA’s SoFi Stadium from the VIP seats and, with little to get excited about on the pitch, was arguably the main character of the evening. Time and again, the TV cameras picked him out, the crowd cheering loudly every time his face appeared on the venue’s big screens.

Brazil are still living in the Neymarverse - and that's exactly how they like it (1)

Neymar watches Brazil vs Costa Rica from the VIP seats (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

His reaction to Vinicius Jr coming off made headlines in Brazil, as did his attempts to keep the peace when Danilo got into an argument with a fan at full time. By that stage, Neymar was down on the pitch. He then joined the Brazil players in the dressing room — a ritual he repeated in Las Vegas four days later, after the 4-1 victory against Paraguay.

It would be easy to view this all as a distraction, Neymar as the ex-lover you keep bumping into, the ghost at the feast. That, though, is categorically not how Brazil’s players and staff see things.


For one thing, Neymar is universally considered to be part of Brazil’s present — and future. He has been in frequent contact with coach Dorival Junior and Rodrigo Caetano, the director of Brazil’s national teams, who have been monitoring his recovery from knee surgery. The expectation is that he will return to the squad as soon as he is fit.

Looking further ahead, Neymar is said to be targeting the 2026 World Cup. He will be 34 by then, but it is almost a given that he will be there, provided his body holds up. It will be a popular selection, too. “For me, he’s still the best,” Brazil icon Ronaldinho said last week. “He still has a lot to offer.”

That view is shared by Brazil’s players. “I may have the No 10 for now, but it’s his shirt,” Rodrygo said before the Copa America began. “I’m just keeping it warm for him. We’re waiting for his return.”

That kind of reverence is par for the course within the squad. The less experienced players speak of Neymar in bashful, hushed tones, as if he were a deity. “Neymar is an idol for all of us,” left-back Guilherme Arana said last week, while Endrick made his admiration clear when he shared an anecdote a few days earlier.

“I was in the physio room and he called Marquinhos,” Endrick said. “Just hearing his voice made me happy. I’ve spoken to him a few times and I’m happy he’s here. He’s a phenomenal guy, an inspiration. I hope I can meet him, take a photo with him, and get some advice from him.”

Brazil are still living in the Neymarverse - and that's exactly how they like it (2)

Endrick has spoken of his admiration for Neymar (Pierre-Phillipe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images)

Neymar has always been a bit of a Peter Pan figure, a flag-bearer for arrested development —and not just because he insists on adding ‘Junior’ to his name. His critics paint him as a deeply unserious manchild, obsessed with poker and surrounded by giggling sycophants who enable him. Those critics probably have a bit of a point.

But there is another side to Neymar. He may not be everyone’s idea of a role model but team-mates do not just admire him for his ability. He is supportive in private — Marquinhos and Vinicius Jr are particularly close to him — and in public. In Los Angeles last week, after suffering along with the rest of the Brazil fans during that 0-0 with Costa Rica, he made a point of calling for unity. “I really believe in this group,” he said.


That affection really came through in a brief interview Neymar gave to the Brazilian YouTuber Isabela Pagliari last week. He spoke fondly of Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo, and explained why he sees it as his obligation to guide the country’s next generation of stars.

“They know how much I care about each one of them,” he said. “I’m always sending them messages, wishing them luck. I spoke to Vini and Rodrygo before the final of the Champions League (with Real Madrid at the start of June) and after they won it. They’re not just great players; they’re human beings. I will always support them and encourage them. If I have to stick my neck out for them, I will.

“I didn’t have anyone to pass the baton to me in that way. When I first joined the national team, it was just me and God. I know how hard it was to carry that responsibility. That’s why I always try to help them in whatever way I can.”

That may mean acting as a cheerleader at this Copa America, but don’t be fooled into thinking that that is now Neymar’s lot. He will be back.

Until then, don’t make the mistake of writing off the Neymarverse. Brazil are still living in it.


Neymar: Maverick, genius, king of the 'could have been'

(Top photo: Lucio Tavora/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Brazil are still living in the Neymarverse - and that's exactly how they like it (4)Brazil are still living in the Neymarverse - and that's exactly how they like it (5)

Jack Lang is a staff writer for The Athletic, covering football. Follow Jack on Twitter @jacklang

Brazil are still living in the Neymarverse - and that's exactly how they like it (2024)
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