The golden boy who can do no wrong: why Brazil is bonkers for Neymar
In Brazil's most easterly city, a sea of Selecao colour adorns every street corner, home and street stall, as the greatest show on earth grips football’s most enthusiastic nation.
A recent poll in Brazil newspaper O Globo revealed that Manaus, which grew to affluence on the back of the rubber boom, can rightfully claim to be the World Cup’s most enthusiastic host city.
As Brazil’s major cities battle with public protest and governmental ill feeling, the Amazonian region has seen nothing of the sort as yet. Fireworks were being set off even before the World Cup opener, yellow and gold shirts were worn with pride, and women meandered through the crowds with amateurish spray-painted hair.
But all of this fervent support would be nothing without the embodiment of fans' affections: the man who has been searched for five times more than Pele on Google, and at just 22 years old is on the same number of goals for his country as Ronaldinho.
A name for all shirts
Neymar Jr is the only named shirt you see, whether on official merchandise or the freely available replicas on sale. The only place you see other Brazilian stars on the back of a shirt is in shop windows, or on mannequins that look far from impressed with having adorned by anything else.
Barcelona’s record signing can do no wrong in Brazil, but even for one so young he knows how to play on his golden boy image. Before last Thursday’s World Cup opener, images of Neymar greeting Kaka pitchside, himself kitted out in yellow and gold, were streamed across the country. The embrace between Neymar and Kaka’s son warmed the hearts of those watching, especially here in Manaus.
A group of older ladies had tears in their eyes, girls fawned over the nearest screen and teenage boys, most sporting a similar hairstyle to that of their idol, looked on with jealousy.
“He can do no wrong here,” one young fan told us. “People blame Barcelona, not Neymar himself, for a bad first season. For Brazil, he is our star.”
Such expectations have hindered some of the most talented players of a generation – just ask Wayne Rooney, who is still struggling to cope with the pressure of being the Three Lions’ leading light.
Against Croatia, Neymar, despite being somewhat fortunate to remain on the pitch after catching Nikica Jelavic with a flailing arm, was looked to for inspiration – and he delivered with aplomb.
Speaking to Brazilian TV after the game, the multi-talented forward showed no signs of the pressure of carrying the hopes of this football-mad nation. “I didn’t mean to hit it that softly,” he beamed, discussing his first goal.
Fluminense shirts are dotted around, all with Fred’s name at the bottom underneath a No.9, and conversing through the only English speaker we could find, they explained their betrayal: “We have Brazil shirts with Neymar Jr on – all of them.”
But what of Pele? How can a man voted player of the century, the face of Brazilian football and the Selecao’s top marksman of all time, not be as popular as a 22-year-old yet to participate at a World Cup?
“Pele says the wrong things,” proclaimed one fan. “He does not always have the interests of Brazil when he speaks.”
Suffice to say, Brazil's most popular player has a nation eating out of the palm of his hand. That can easily change, of course – Brazilians are a notably fickle bunch – but with an unerring ability to ignore his stardom in a country desperately trying to get over Maracanazo heartache of 1950, Neymar da Silva Santos Junior is on course to send this football-mad nation into delirium.