There is an oft quoted statistic that in London you are, technically, never further than 50 metres away from a rat at any one time. (It’s not true, of course).
In Brazil, you are never more than 50 metres away from a billboard or a product featuring the boyish, almost anime style features of Neymar Junior.
And so the term “Neymarketing” was coined in his homeland back when he was a teenage sensation at Santos.
It’s reasonably obvious that Neymar, driven by his ambitious father and agent Neymar Senior, aspires to be more than just a footballer.
Neymar is a brand to rival David Beckham, which is why this summer’s World Cup was far more than just a sporting disappointment for the Seleção forward, as Brazil tumbled out to Belgium at the quarter-final stage.
It was also a PR disaster for brand Neymar, as the player invited widespread scorn for his histrionics and low pain threshold.
High profile reputations stand at the mercy of the meme makers, and in that respect this summer has wielded a hefty body blow to Neymar’s public image, as images of him rolling on the floor in anguish were imaginatively superimposed into a myriad of amusing scenarios.
Football fans around the world are trolling Neymar’s Russia 2018 performance by dropping, rolling and faking injuries.
Have you done the #NeymarChallenge yet? pic.twitter.com/RttD4qwUeT
— TRT World (@trtworld) July 12, 2018
Newspaper columnists and television pundits the world over clacked their tongues in irritation at the player. A statistic circulated that Neymar had spent a total of 14 minutes grounded during the tournament. The fact that someone felt moved to make this calculation illustrates the appetite for anti-Ney material.
Indeed, his actions have led to an absence of sympathy — he came into the World Cup on the back of an injury and he was the most fouled player at a World Cup for a generation.
There is some supposition that his exaggeration of contact equally irks referees. Mexico’s Miguel Layun should probably have been red carded for standing on Neymar’s ankle off the ball during the last 16 clash against El Tri, but Neymar’s reaction moved the focus away from the offender, who went unpunished.
Perceived histrionics are a historic issue for the player. At Santos, a stand-off with O Peixe coach Dorival Junior saw the manager sacked to satisfy the teenage Neymar. Ever since, accusations of brattishness have followed him around.
When he joined Barcelona in 2013, Neymar was very careful to try to banish this image, publicly kowtowing to the greatness of Lionel Messi. On the pitch, he seemed happy to form part of a triumvirate with Messi and Suarez and he developed into more of a team player at international level under the watchful eye of Tite.
But his public image was dented again when he joined Paris Saint-Germain last summer in a pretty blatant attempt to win the Ballon D’Or — an individual award.
Much of the talk around the move focused on him ‘stepping out of Messi’s shadow.’ If he could help PSG to their maiden Champions League title, the story went, his case for the sport’s supreme individual award would be strengthened.
Winning club titles was almost seen as a conduit for individual accolades, which has tarnished his image once again. The preening, egocentric reputation he cultivated as a teenager in Brazil was now broadcast and amplified on the world stage. The strategy not only left a bad taste in people’s mouths, but it was flawed anyway.
Frankly, Neymar could score 100 goals in Ligue 1 and that won’t be enough to win him the Ballon D’Or. Moving to PSG rendered all of his domestic feats immaterial. At least at Barca, there were a couple of Clasicos and a few games against Atletico Madrid every season. Moving to PSG funnelled all of Neymar’s credibility into two competitions — the Champions League and the World Cup.
Neymar and his advisors have learned the folly of this strategy the hard way. These are both knockout competitions that are incredibly difficult to win.
The player was injured prior to the Champions League round of 16 second leg against Real Madrid, denying him one of the few blockbuster matches available to build his case for world domination. PSG were then eliminated from the competition and Neymar’s season was over.
The player’s failure to return to Paris for their title celebrations furthered the impression of a selfish individual, while the story that circulated about his three day birthday party in Paris projected an image of diva style indulgence. The latter would not be much of an issue without the former.
Ronaldinho’s excesses are celebrated because he played with a smile, whereas Neymar’s image is far less of a man that loves to celebrate life and more of a man that loves attention, however exaggerated these impressions might be in reality.
This juxtaposition is important when it comes to Neymar’s image. The image of a grinning Ronaldinho playing percussion at the World Cup closing ceremony almost served as an unflattering, if unconscious comparison.
There has also been talk in Brazil of fans relating to a Seleção team where an uncanny amount of players were raised by single mothers. This was regarded almost as an antidote to the bling culture of player WAGS that has blown up in the global media.
The team was seen as more relatable to female fans due to their connection with strong, maternal role models. Neymar is, of course, most closely associated with his father, who also acts as his agent.
But the biggest issue of juxtaposition for Neymar is his PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe. In a tournament lacking dominant individuals, he came closer to making the World Cup his own than any other attacker and certainly left a more favourable impression than Neymar.
Had Neymar notched a pair of decisive goals against Argentina and scored from outside the area in a victorious final, there is little doubt that he would be hailed as the successor to Messi and Ronaldo on the world stage.
It is not just the Mbappe’s feats that forge an unfavourable comparison, but his humility in achieving them. The French teenager has repeatedly insisted that winning the Ballon D’Or matters little to him, and herein lies a life lesson for Neymar, 7 years Mbappe’s senior: trying to win an individual award in a team sport is a big barrier to actually doing it.
Mbappe has also moved to kill transfer speculation linking him with Madrid, while, the perception is, that Neymar allows rumours of Real Madrid’s interest to cultivate.
My view is that Neymar should look to move to Madrid if possible to claw back some of his sporting credibility, but such is the strength of feeling against him his image will take another hit in doing so.
Reports in Brazil suggest he has hired PR staff to help re-doctor his damaged image. Earlier this week, he posted a self-mocking video of ‘The Neymar Challenge’ — a viral sensation cocking a snook at his histrionics.
E quem disse que ele não ia entrar na brincadeira? 😂 pic.twitter.com/8sBq4K3csQ
— Neymar Daily (@njrdaily) July 19, 2018
Neymar’s pursuit of a sparkling brand image has, ironically, hurt his image — at least outside of Brazil. At home he still enjoys a great deal of affection.
Mud sticks and it will take a while for the player to repair his personal brand as people’s minds aren’t changed quickly once impressions are formed.
On the pitch, the player remains a supreme talent whose powers have not diminished. But for his personal brand, which is clearly of importance to him, Neymarketing faces its most difficult challenge yet.
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