For Neymar, first it was a beach, then the world

Santos (Brazil) (AFP) –


Twenty years ago, a coach named Betinho was watching a game of beach football when he spotted a skinny boy of six sprinting up and down the terracing, faster than he'd ever seen someone of that age. It was Neymar.

The boy, who would one day turn into the world's most expensive footballer, dashed around that afternoon in 1998 near Santos, south of Sao Paulo, under the eye of his mother. His father, a recently retired professional right-back, played in an amateur game on the sand.

The experienced Betinho took it all in.

"This is how I saw it," Betinho, 60, told AFP in the small town of Sao Vicente, where he still lives, not far from the beach where he struck footballing gold.

"The father plays well, the mother is tall, so if the boy turns out thin like her, and with his father's game, it will work."

Betinho knew what he was talking about.

Eight years earlier he'd discovered Robinho, who would go on to shine at Pele's old club Santos, then play for Real Madrid, Manchester City, AC Milan and in two World Cups with Brazil.

What Betinho didn't know was that he'd just spotted someone even better.

Approaching the parents, he asked if he could take the kid they called "Juninho" -- the diminutive of Junior, which is how relatives still call the star -- to train with the area futsal team, Gremetal. They agreed.

"All my career I wanted to find a player who could summon up the spirit of Pele. Lightening struck twice for me," Betinho said.

- 100 percent Jesus -

Betinho and Neymar stuck together in a journey that led from club to club before the prodigy was signed up to Santos Football Club's training programme at the age of 11.

The slender, skilled dribbler's reputation preceded him.

"We already knew who Neymar was. They were already taking care of him as if he was a future great," said his friend Pedro Lopes at Gremetal, where they first met 16 years ago.

Neymar was only nine when he arrived, but after just two training sessions he was moved up an age category.

"In most of our games, we'd pass the ball to him and wait for him to dribble through half the opposing team," Lopes says.

Lopes and Neymar became close both on the pitch and in school, but although Neymar was a good student, his destiny was already in motion.

"He had innate talent, which has been honed with time, especially in the team aspect of the game, because he was always someone very hungry for the ball. He wanted to get the ball, to dribble past everyone," said the Gremetal coach, Alcides Magri.

It was at Gremetal that Neymar got his first title, starting a streak that would later include a Champions League, Copa Libertadores and Olympic gold. It was also at Gremetal that he began his tradition of celebrating cup wins by wrapping on a headband given to him by his devout Evangelical Christian mother, reading: "100 percent Jesus."

- High life -

To fans, Neymar has often come across as a spoiled playboy, never happier than when showing off his latest tattoo on Instagram.

But those who know him from the start say the star is playful and joyful, if not always understood by others.

"He's someone with incredible energy, happiness, an extrovert who always feels good about life. When I'm down, I try to get close to him because he transmits huge positivity," Lopes said.

With his dyed hair, tatoos and similar love of Instagram, Lopes fits right in with Neymar's band of friends who call themselves the "Tois." The gang rallied around the Paris Saint-Germain forward when he flew home for surgery on a broken foot bone in February.

"When he suffered the sadness of that injury, he turned to his family for comfort, to raise his self-esteem and to recuperate as quickly as possible," Lopes said.

One of Neymar's morale-boosting requests was for Lopes to bring him a Gremetal shirt to put in his collection.

It was a moment of nostalgia. But as his discoverer Betinho says, Neymar's roots are already far behind.

"I spent six years looking after him, which is a long time. But now he's part of the world."