Neymar personifies the 21st-century YouTube footballer
The Brazilian star is as talented a marketer as he is a footballer
Brazil’s Neymar celebrates a wonder free kick against Italy.
Last Saturday night we saw a goal that was truly state-of-the-art. First Neymar deceived the referee by craftily engineering a collision with Christian Maggio. Then he curled a perfect free-kick past Gianluigi Buffon into the top corner. Then he ran to the corner and, after celebrating with his team-mates, he did a little dance by himself, making a T-shaped gesture with his forearms at the end of each shimmy.
There was nothing improvised about the dance. The “T” gesture referred to “Toiss”, a piece of nonsense which has become a kind of trademark of Neymar’s. The word comes from the Brazilian slang expression “é nóis”, which means literally “is us”, but is used as a general exclamation of happiness, “we’re doing it!”, something along the lines of “FTW”.
Neymar and his friends replaced the “N” in “nóis” with “T” to make “Toiss”. He started using it on Twitter, in a style reminiscent of US swimmer Ryan Lochte, who accompanies every other tweet with the word “#jeah”. “Toiss” appeared on a million retweets, then a range of Nike merchandise, and now Neymar takes it onto the field.
Here was a goal incorporating a dive, an in-joke and a marketing campaign. It could have been an easy goal to hate, except that the strike itself was pure genius.
Neymar has been called a YouTube footballer, a player who looks great in highlights clips but is not consistently influential over the course of a match. He’s proved those critics wrong; he is a massive talent. He is, however, very much at home on YouTube. There’s a lot of Neymar on there, including a video of all his goals for Santos, and a video of all his ads. Many of the goals are incredible. The ads video is seven minutes longer.
Last month, Neymar was named the world’s most marketable athlete by SportsPro magazine, ahead of second-placed Lionel Messi and Rory McIlroy in third. Aged 21, he’s the biggest star in the country with the fifth-largest population on earth, handsome, supernaturally talented, with most of his career ahead of him.
He’s also prepared to do absolutely anything in an ad. Whether the client requires him to perform a bicycle kick, strip down to his underwear, sit on a couch with Ronaldo posing for selfies, or dress up in a cow suit and milk himself, Neymar will deliver.
Rampant commercialisation is nothing new to Brazilian football. Pele was doing it 20 years before Neymar was born. When you compare his 1970s ads with Neymar’s, what stands out is how much more comfortable the younger man is before the cameras. While Pele’s delivery of the simplest slogans was so stilted that the ad men often asked him just to juggle a ball, Neymar’s oeuvre features lengthy soliloquies and ironic ham-acting. He has grown up on camera and it shows.
Past generations of Brazilian players could tell him that sometimes commercial activities have unexpected consequences. Take Gerson, who scored Brazil’s second goal in the 1970 World Cup final. Gerson smoked 30 cigarettes a day throughout his career, and in 1976 he cashed in with a TV ad for Vila Rica cigarettes.
The ad begins with Gerson sitting in a distinctively 1970s interior. As he lights a cigarette, the voiceover introduces him as “the brain of the 1970 World Champion team”. Cue footage of his goal in the final, jinking past Giacinto Facchetti and lashing a shot beyond Albertosi. Back to 1970s interior, where Gerson offers a cigarette to a moustachioed friend in a brown suit. Gerson asks “why pay more when Vila Rica gives me everything I want from a great cigarette?” The final shot has Gerson looking directly into camera, cigarette in right hand. “I like to take advantage in everything. You like to take advantage in everything too, right? Then smoke Vila Rica.”
Unfortunately for Gerson something about his pay-off line struck an unintended chord with the audience. “I like to take advantage in everything” became ironically known as “Gerson’s Law”, a motto for the casual cynicism and corruption that characterised Brazilian life. Decades of politicians living by Gerson’s Law ultimately led to the massive street protests that now embarrass the Brazilian government.
Pele’s verdict was: “Let’s forget all this commotion, all these protests, and remember the Brazilian squad is our country and our blood.” His comments were met with mass derision. Pele took to Twitter to limit the damage: “I have always fought against corruption . . . I am 100% in favour of this movement for justice in Brazil! ” Nobody cared. Pele has shilled so long for so many corporations that he years ago ceased to have any moral authority.
Neymar may not feel he has much use for moral authority. He’s just a young footballer having a good time. You just hope he understands that every time he does another ad, he sells off another little piece of himself.
Fame of a lower order than Neymar’s was too much for Stephen King, whose struggles with drink and drugs in the 1980s are well-documented.
King told the BBC in 2006 that fame was like “this wonderful banquet that the world has to offer you. And for you, it’s all free. And people pay you huge amounts of money to do it . . . So you’ve got this tremendous banquet. And you can eat as much as you want. They just don’t tell you that you’re the final course.”