There is a Brazilian saying that the soccer prodigy Neymar and his family often laugh about. The phrase — calça de veludo ou bunda de fora — comes up frequently: when Neymar reminisces about his beginnings in street games in São Vicente, for example, or when someone asks, again, “Are you really better than Messi?” Always, the family returns to calça de veludo ou bunda de fora. And then they all giggle.
The phrase is difficult to translate directly into English. Generally, it has to do with gambling and a man’s soul. It has to do with being brash and bold and brave. It has to do with fortitude and, perhaps more than anything else, an abiding belief in a singular path.
Sitting in a hotel lounge 25 stories above Columbus Circle in Manhattan last month, the star’s father, Neymar Sr., looked out over Central Park and tried his best to explain it. Across the Hudson River, his son was with the Brazilian national team, preparing for a sold-out exhibition match against Argentina and, beyond that, for the Olympics, where he will be the most dynamic player in the competition. At the London Games, with the world’s spotlight squarely on him, Neymar Jr. will seek to earn his country a gold medal, the one major soccer trophy it has never won.
“He is living it right now,” Neymar Sr. said. “That saying we talk about — he is doing it.” But that was not enough. So Neymar Sr. tried again, through a translator, to summarize the essence of the phrase. His son’s success, he continued, has always been based on risk. On finding the right mix of fast and slow, of possibility and caution.
At 20 years old, Neymar is already the highest-paid soccer player in Brazil. He is the face (and future) of soccer’s South American mecca. He is, in the words of no less than perhaps the greatest player in history, a technical marvel, a wizard with magical feet. But through it all, his father said, this one Brazilian saying has guided him, especially now as the latest question — when