My family and I watched the opening match of the World Cup with 15,000 friends on the beach in Copacabana. We shrieked and we cringed and we embraced total strangers, as one does.
Brazil, of course, won that first contest, helped by a stellar performance by its 22-year-old hotshot striker Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. He seemed almost to dance with the ball, always eluding any Croatian defenders who tried to mark him. And as we were making our way up off the sand, my seven-year-old son said, in the dead-serious tone he sometimes uses, “I think Neymar would make an excellent role model.”
He went on to talk about the way Neymar (as he is universally known) had solicitously helped up opposing players he had knocked to the pitch in a tackle, and consoled his teammates with a reassuring back slap when a free kick went wide. Neymar isn’t just the best player in the game, Darragh said, he’s also a good guy.
All of us, children and grownups, look for examples of how to be. I have a role model of my own: a friend who seems to manage always to be kind, in the face of napless toddlers and boorish adults. Children, of course, are more inclined to pick celebrated people of whom they have only the most surface knowledge. Pop divas and NBA players and movie stars. People who seem “famous,” even when you are too young to know how you get famous; people who seem to have those qualities so seductive to children, of achieving effortlessly, getting to do whatever they want.
As we set off for home, my partner Meril cautiously agreed that Neymar did seem like a fine fellow – an assessment based on the humble and peppy demeanour he uses in interviews here. But we exchanged a look of mild alarm over Darragh’s head: We had been down this road before.
In a previous posting, I was the Globe’s correspondent in Johannesburg, and as a toddler, Darragh developed a fascination with the South African track and field star Oscar Pistorius – who back then was famous only for sprinting on his carbon-fibre prosthetic legs.
He saw pictures of “the bionic man” in the newspapers, and was full of questions. We told him how Oscar was born missing two important bones in his legs, but doctors made him plastic legs. How he played rugby and water polo and tennis in school, and he was really fast. How he wanted to start racing, and a special engineer made him lower legs made of a springy metal – and he started winning all the races.
Pistorius, holder of every Paralympic title in his events, was suing for the right to compete with able-bodied athletes.
And we speculated with Darragh about whether he might one day win an Olympic medal, too. The straight-backed, hard-working and earnest (in public) Pistorius seemed like a fine person for our kid to admire.
And then, four years later, we were living in New Delhi and the newspaper arrived one morning with a screaming headline about Pistorius having shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. I hastily shoved the Times of India into a kitchen drawer as Darragh came in the room. Once he had left for school, Meril and I debated about what to tell him: The story was so abrasively shocking. I couldn’t face talking to my son about how his hero had emptied a gun through a bathroom door and killed his girlfriend. I was neck deep in covering the effects of the gang rape on a bus that had turned India upside down; I couldn’t bring men and their violence any further into our home.
So we didn’t tell him about Oscar – not then, and not when the trial began. We hid the newspapers, kept the Twitter stream off any laptop he might see. His image of Pistorius is, as far as I know, still unsullied. But our own, of course, has suffered mightily for the revelations since.
And it turns out that long before the shooting, there were stories: He was a gun nut; he drove recklessly; he behaved badly, if not in an outright violent way, with young women. And he moved in an all-white world that often spoke of alarmingly unreconstructed politics in South Africa. Pistorius, had we bothered to research, would have shown himself a lousy role model.
So there would be no rushing into love with Neymar for me.
After some hasty research, I have concluded that he is exactly what you would expect for a wildly famous 22-year-old who has been a superstar since age 12. He is vain as all-get-out, Instagramming a steady stream of photos of himself with new hairdos. He shaves his legs, waxes his eyebrows, straightens his hair, gets pedicures. One of his less-kind nicknames in Brazil is “Neymarketing,” because he endorses everything from Mentos to Volkswagens to a bank. But no guns, and no beating up women in bars.
He makes much of how close he is to his family. His father, in turn, has boasted of how they donate 10 per cent of his earnings to their evangelical Christian church, and how even though his son was earning millions, he restricted him to just $2,500 a month in his bank account, so that he didn’t become a spendthrift.
But I knew from my reporting on Brazilian football that his father was a bit sketchy. He secretly accepted a €10-million “gift” payment from the Barcelona Football Club while his son was still under contract to Santos, the Brazilian team where he was trained. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the young superstar, sought by every club on Earth, went to Barcelona when the day came to sell him internationally.
Neymar himself has now had the life media-trained out of him, and so he is unlikely to say anything too problematic. His on-pitch behaviour remains exemplary. It’s going to be impossible to keep my kids from getting swept up in the wave of Neymar love that captivares the nation.
And that will be fine: He gives us a chance to start talking about some bigger things than just being “the best.” Like whether his father was honest. What kinds of things Neymar might do with his influence, besides sell shoes and start hair trends. Other stuff, too – mixed-race Neymar made a lot of Brazilians upset a few months ago when he said he “isn’t black.” There’s a lot of dinner table fodder in that.
People are complicated. Pedestals are easy places from which to fall. And perhaps when we learn that lesson from soccer players, it’s a bit easier to take when our parents prove human too.