When Brazil got the Copa America under way on Friday night with an opening game against Bolivia, the country's star player, Neymar, was missing from its starting 11. Normally the first name on the team sheet, he was unavailable after he ruptured ankle ligaments in a warm-up match against Qatar last week.
Such misfortune has become frustratingly familiar for the 27-year-old Paris Saint-Germain striker. A series of injuries and the march of time mean interested observers are increasingly looking at the clock and wondering if the greatest Brazilian player of his generation will ever realise his ambition to be crowned the world’s best player.
As his latest shift in the treatment room derails another disappointing season’s last chance at glory, the sense of what might have been only grows around a career in which the switch from Barcelona to the relative backwater of the French league in 2017 looks increasingly misjudged.
But unlike during the last two World Cups, Brazilians were little interested in medical bulletins on their main man in the build-up to this month’s Copa America, the South American equivalent of the European Championship.
Instead the country has been consumed by another, altogether more sombre threat to the player’s career, this time related to his off-field activities.
On May 31st, Najila Trindade Mendes de Souza, a 26-year-old model, walked into a São Paulo police station and accused Neymar of raping her in a Paris hotel room two weeks previously.
The accusation stunned Brazil. Neymar’s star might have dimmed somewhat in recent years as many former admirers have become fed-up with what they see as the endless narcissism of a spoilt brat who refuses to grow up, and with his grasping family.
But for many more he is still the kid with the cheeky smile and fancy skills who loves to party with his mates. Whatever one thinks of him it is difficult to ignore his outsized presence in the country’s media, both traditional and social.
They met in a hotel room near the Arc de Triomphe on May 15th. It is at this point their versions of what happened diverge
Neymar and Najila had first connected via his Instagram account, one of the 10 most popular in the world. Online flirting soon led to an invite from the player for the woman to come to Paris, all expenses paid. Both acknowledge sex rather than romance was the goal.
“It was a desire of mine,” she would later tell a television interviewer. They eventually met in a room at the Sofitel near the Arc de Triomphe on May 15th. It is at this point their versions of what happened diverge.
Najila says the pair “swapped caresses” but as things heated up she asked Neymar if he had a condom with him. When he said no she told him they would not be able to have sex. It is at this moment she claims the player became violent and raped her. She says she did not inform French authorities about what happened at the time because she was distraught.
For his part Neymar says nothing of the kind occurred and that while the two did have sex it was consensual. His camp claims he is the victim of an extortion attempt, Najila’s first lawyer having arranged a meeting back in São Paulo before she went to the police in a bid to broker some sort of deal.
The player and his personal staff moved quickly and aggressively to deny the rape claim. Just hours after the accusation became public knowledge, he appeared in a seven-minute video on his Instagram account giving his version of events. In it he showed parts of a WhatsApp conversation in which Najila flirted with him and sent a number of increasingly racy photos of herself.
Instagram would later take down the video saying it broke its rules which prohibit users publishing intimate photos of others without their permission. But it was too late. The strategy was already a success for Neymar. Before Brazilians even knew her real name Neymar’s team had successfully portrayed Najila to millions as a Maria Chuteira, or Mary Boots, as football groupies are know in Brazilian slang.
“Because she went there to have sex with him, people seem to think he could therefore do what he wanted with her as if she was an inflatable doll and not a person,” says psychologist Vera Iaconelli, president of the Instituto Gerar and a women’s rights advocate in São Paulo.
Even as many took to social media to ridicule Neymar for falling victim to such a scam, the then-unnamed woman was denounced as a slut, a prostitute and a hustler.
Others even joked that Neymar should have followed the example of former Flamengo goalkeeper Bruno. He was jailed in 2010 for ordering the murder of Eliza Samudio, another football groupie with whom he had a son. Her body was dismembered and fed to dogs.
“Neymar’s whole strategy repeats a ever-recurring process that we see in the media and in the justice system that seeks to destroy the reputation of the victim,” says Daiany Dantas, a professor of social communication and member of the Women’s Articulation collective of feminist groupings.
“When a public figure needs to preserve their reputation, whenever they are threatened in a case like this, we see them using this stereotype of the woman who is a swindler, an opportunist, the woman who uses her sexuality to dissemble.”
Neymar is now being investigated by Brazilian police over whether the video broke a law banning the publication of intimate photos of another person online without their permission. He blames his staff for it.
Asked about the matter, his domineering father, Neymar snr, who has controlled his son’s career since childhood, responded: “I’d prefer to commit an online crime than the crime of rape.”
The Instagram video, seen more than 18 million times before it was taken down, set the tone for the week. José Luiz Datena, one of Brazil’s most popular television presenters, interviewed Neymar snr, who promptly declared his son innocent, going on to reveal Najila’s identity live on air. This only intensified the online attacks against her.
President Jair Bolsonaro expressed his support for the player and visited him in hospital after he ruptured his ligaments. In congress a deputy from the president's party proposed a new law to increase penalties against those making false sexual accusations.
The proposal was quickly dubbed the Neymar da Penha Bill in mock reference to the Maria da Penha law, which created mechanisms to tackle unchecked domestic violence in Brazil and which took feminists decades of struggle to get on to the statute books. Even one of the country’s most prominent anti-corruption judges took to Twitter to declare “the weaker half in a relationship is not always the victim”.
I have been shocked at seeing women, educated women, women from the arts, speaking badly of this girl [Najila]
As millions of Brazilians – from the president down – have made snap judgments about a rape case still under investigation, many are horrified at the reaction to the accusation against Neymar. They worry about what it could mean in a country in which it is estimated as few as one in 10 rapes are reported and just one in 100 leads to a conviction.
‘Exposed and judged’
“I do not know if Najila is an opportunist or not. But she was exposed and judged. Her life was turned upside down,” says psychologist Vera Iaconelli. “Women who think of denouncing a rape will think, ‘I don’t want this to happen to me.’ She represents everything that women fear and why they do not denounce rape. It is terrible.”
This reaction and its consequences help explain why Brazil has never had a proper #MeToo moment, Dr Iaconello believes. “There is a difference between using a decorative hashtag and what we learn when we have a real case. I have been shocked at seeing women, educated women, women from the arts, speaking badly of this girl [Najila].
“These are women who claim they are feminists but in reality have no idea what feminism is. The mask has slipped.”
The negative judging of Najila has intensified in recent days as she runs through lawyers, three already having abandoned her case and portraying her as an unreliable client. She has failed to produce for police a video she made of a second meeting in Paris with Neymar the next day, one he failed to mention in his Instagram post.
She had claimed this recording, a minute of which surfaced in the media, would back up her accusation. Now she says the device containing the clip has been stolen, a claim the police say they have no evidence for. She is in hiding and reportedly suffering from depression.
But campaigners say regardless of the outcome of the police investigation, much has been learnt already and it is disturbing. “He could well be innocent, but the big issue here is the reaction to the accusation against Neymar and just how easily his defence provoked a sexist, misogynist response,” says Prof Dantas.