Neymar has been a superstar-in-the-making for over five years now, mostly due to his preternatural talent that manifested itself at a young age and never stopped growing. But it's also because of the flair and passion with which he plays the game, an emotional vulnerability that always lies just beneath the surface; or, you could say, is revealed right there on the top of his head.
Heralded as the boy king of Brazil since at least the disappointment at the 2010 World Cup, Neymar has worn the crown well, and even decorated it himself. The hairstyles he has sported throughout his career closely mirror his game, his confidence, and how he wants to be portrayed. See for yourself:
March 2009: Here's a young Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior making one of his early appearances for Santos. The 17-year-old, playing for the club that brought the world Pelé and more recently the wonderkid Robinho, was already being whispered about as the next great homegrown stud for the Peixe off the strength of his exploits with the youth team.
From the start, Neymar was already living up to they hype. In 2009, when he broke into the first team, the teenager made 33 appearances and scored 10 goals. His haircut is a shaggy buzz cut, probably fashioned by his mother in one of the few moments her son was sitting still and not run around with a ball all day.
May 2010: This picture comes early in the 2010 season. At only 18 he had solidified himself as a must-start in the Santos lineup and was maybe their best player already. That season he'd make 60 total appearances, knock in a ridiculous 42 goals, and lead—along with fellow young phenom Paulo Ganso and returning hero Robinho—Santos to the Campeonato Paulista (São Paulo state championship) and the Copa do Brazil.
This was the first sighting of what would become Neymar's trademark mohawk at it's budding phase, definitely stylized though not very long and pretty kempt.
August 2010: Here, Neymar scored his first international goal in a friendly versus the US. After controversially getting left off of the final roster for the recently-ended World Cup—among those clamoring for his inclusion were Pelé, Brazilian legend Romário, and 14,000 signees of a fan petition—Neymar was beginning to integrate into the first team. His hair is still mohawked, but now in a much more flamboyant, bordering on ridiculous way.
Right around that time two English clubs, West Ham and Chelsea, tabled bids to buy him from Santos, but they were rejected. A few months later, Santos would sell some of his rights to a third party to subsidize his wages, paying him closer to what he'd make had he played in Europe.
A month later his Santos manager, Dorival Júnior, would be fired from the aftermath of an in-game incident with his star player. Santos won a penalty, Neymar wanted to take it, but the manager wouldn't let him, so Neymar started a row while still on the pitch. For this, the manager wanted to suspend him for two weeks, but the club convinced him to make it only one game. When the suspension was up, Dorival Júnior decided not to reinstate Neymar to the starting lineup and was subsequently fired.
March 2011: Here he is playing in a friendly against Scotland. Still a mohawk, but a more styled and stylish one. Neymar was starting to become a regular in the national team side.
December 2011: Neymar in the Club World Cup. Santos earned the trip to this tournament by winning the Copa Libertadores (basically South America's Champions League) in large part because of him. It was the first Copa Santos had won since the Pelé days. They would eventually reach the final of the Club World Cup, pitting him against his future employers, Barcelona.
In fact, Barça's rivals, Real Madrid, were threatened with a tampering-like lawsuit by Santos for reportedly attempting to sign Neymar to a pre-contract before his current deal was up. He later signed a extension with Santos that was to keep him there until after the 2014 World Cup on home soil.
His hair is more of a fauxhawk now, long all over but gelled up into bleached-blond spikes at the top. More extravagant than the prior picture, though still stylish in a way.
January 2012: Neymar in Zurich, Switzerland for the 2011 Ballon d'Or. He finished 10th in the overall voting, the only non-European-based player to receive any votes. He attended, however, because he won the Puskás Award for the best goal of the year for this. His hair is very similar to the previous one, still a messy fauxhawk, though with a more muted dye job. That he'd show up to an award show looking like he just woke up shows where his confidence was at.
June 2012: Brazil and Argentina face off. The hype machine was on overdrive by that point. In response to claims that Argentina's Lionel Messi was the best player of all time, Pelé said Messi wasn't even the best player in the world right now: Neymar was. He was already being groomed to play as the focal point in a Brazil team that at least in the home nation's eyes would be World Cup champions or bust.
August 2012: This is from the Olympics semi-final, the largest international stage the world-renown yet rarely seen player had yet played on. The British media especially was keen to catch a glimpse of the alleged wonderkid. The British soccer press is pretty finicky. They privilege their ability to spot talent, and love exposing a fraud. They also have an arrogant reverence for their Premier League. The thinking goes if you can't make the transition there, you aren't actually any good.
Brazil also took this tournament surprisingly seriously. The Olympic gold in soccer is the one major award the Seleção have never won, and they were keen on remedying this. Along with a core of typical U23 guys they expected to feature in the 2014 WC (Neymar, Oscar, Leandro Damião, Sandro), they also brought in key over-aged players (Thiago Silva, Marcelo, and Hulk) to make this as much a trial run for the World Cup as possible.
In front of this, Neymar's traditional mohawk had developed into sort of a fancy mullet. The sides are still cut pretty short, and there are various spikes shooting this way and that. The messiness still hints that the pressure isn't getting to him too much. Not that he should. At every level so far his talent has met expectations, enthralling the fans in both for club and country.
August 2012: Until the Olympics final, that is. Though their tourney display wasn't as joga bonito as everyone would've preferred, Brazil did get to the final, where they lost to nobody's idea of peak Mexico. The Brits were sort of bemused by the Neymar-mania, admitting that the kid had some skills, sure, but was nowhere near the finished article.
Back in Brazil (indeed, even on the pitch, as you can tell from Oscar's, Neymar's, and Hulk's faces) the failure was a national embarrassment. Seleção manager Mano Menezes, who coached the Olympic team himself in a strange message about how important victory in Britain was, was immediately under fire despite going undefeated in almost an entire calendar year. He would only last a couple more months on the job before getting fired in November. A year and a half before the World Cup, Brazil needed a new coach.
February 2013: Even that disappointment wouldn't get Young Ney off his game, though. In his next appearance in England—a friendly against the Three Lions at Wembley Stadium—the Brazilian could be seen rocking that brilliantly bleached blonde 'do you see above. He was still wrecking shit with Santos, scoring for fun and setting his sights toward Europe.
March 2013: Neymar in attendance at the Laureus World Sports Awards, held in Rio de Janeiro. Though the plan had long been for him to move on from Brazil after the World Cup, his European adventure now seemed imminent. As he said in that same month, "I dream of playing in Europe, for a big club like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea. Who wouldn't dream about playing alongside Messi, Xavi and Iniesta? They're all great players." Later that month, Neymar would announce his move to Barcelona.
June 2013: This was the start of the biggest summer in what was sure to be the biggest 13 months in Neymar's life. This picture is before another friendly match against England, this time in Brazil. It was a tune-up to the soon-to-start Confederations Cup.
More important than the match that day or his new haircut was the number on his shirt. It was the first time Neymar wore the iconic number 10 for the senior national side. For so long, on both youth and senior levels, the number 10 was reserved for teammate Oscar. Neymar normally wore his club number, 11, a typical winger's number. By inheriting the number 10, manager Felipe Scolari was signaling to player, to the team, to the country, and to the world at large that Neymar was the man to fill the shirt of Pelé, Zico, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho, the man to lift them to World Cup glory.
The importance of the new number and his barely a week-old transfer to the Spanish giants likely inspired Neymar's relatively staid haircut. While damn-near worshipped in Brazil, he still had a bit of a reputation as a selfish glory hound to the rest of the world that had only seen a mohawked, bleached-blond Brazilian wonderkid twirling his way to the goal in Youtube highlights, or heard about an impetuous coach-killer on message boards. Before making the step up to the international stage, Neymar ditched the dye and the spikes, in favor of a still chic but less garish look.
June 2013: Proving he's no Samson, Neymar kept right on balling out through the Confederations Cup. He scored four goals en route to a dominating tournament victory, and was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player. Brazil beat Spain in the final, a symbolic victory over the reigning world champs the Seleção planned on topping the next summer. For Neymar, it was a chance to show many of his new Barcelona teammates that he was a force to be reckoned with.
August 2013: Neymar and Messi, talking before the Barcelona-Santos preseason friendly. The friendly was part of Neymar's convoluted transfer negotiation between the two clubs, which would cause considerable turmoil later in the season.
Neymar was brought to Barcelona to form with Messi the world's most fearsome attacking duo. Their relationship would be scrutinized all season, with many wondering if there were enough shots to satisfy both forwards' goal hunger.
Even former player, manager, and all-around Barça legend—albeit one recently alienated from the club by president Sandro Rosell—Johan Cruyff noted that, were he still in charge, he would've considered selling Messi to build around Barcelona's new, younger superstar. "We'll have to wait and see—it could turn out well or badly. It's a risk."
September 2013: Warm-ups before a Barcelona-Ajax Champions League match. Neymar has played fairly well so far, though he hadn't played too often. A strange injury or virus or something kept him out of much of Barça's preseason and relegated him to a substitute role when the season began. His hair is even more conservative here, with no gel nor any real style to it.
October 2013: South Korea-Brazil friendly. Neymar returned to the Seleção for a match in South Korea. Barça fans began getting a little angsty about Neymar's performances, mainly because he had only one league goal, scored only a couple weeks before. Back in the Brazil squad he always looked more comfortable in, Neymar scored in this game. This haircut has a little more gel, is cut shorter on the sides, and grown longer on top. You'll also notice that he's started growing a beard.
December 2013: By December, Neymar was really beginning to settle in. In late October, he had a goal and an assist in a victory over rivals Real Madrid in the season's first el clásico derby. In mid-December, he had a hat trick in a 6-1 demolition of Celtic in the Champions League.
His hair was still more or less in the style he began the season with, the only real change through the first few months being how long or short he kept it. This is it at at its shaggiest.
January 2014: Coming back from La Liga's winter break, Neymar cut his hair a lot shorter than it had been in years. January was anything but a festive period for Neymar and the club. Early in the month, rumors began to spread that the Brazilian's transfer from Santos to Barcelona involved a number of clandestine clauses allegedly meant to save the club tax money and hide their newest player's true transfer value and wages.
A lawsuit by a Barça socio (the quick and dirty version: a member of Barcelona's fan group that has voting power in the club's elections) wanting to see the real paperwork was filed in Madrid. Club president Rosell resigns amidst the controversy, though he denies any wrongdoing. Back on the pitch, in the game above, Neymar would twist his ankle and miss a month of action.
March 2014: After one of the season's lowest points, when Barcelona saw its La Liga lead disappear with two losses in three games, Neymar brought back out the mohawk. Despite getting blamed for upsetting the locker room's chemistry, bringing down the club's president, and fitting like a round peg in a square hole in the team's tactics, Neymar still decided to turn up the swag. Barcelona proceeded to finish off Manchester City in the Champions League and fight their way back into the La Liga title race.
April 2014: Barcelona are knocked out of the Champions League by fellow Spanish team Atlético Madrid. Earlier in the month, as punishment for improprieties regarding the club's youth program, FIFA hammered Barça with a 12 month transfer freeze. Neymar stuck with the mohawk, its shagginess matched by his fuller beard.
April 2014: A week after the Champions League defeat, Barcelona lost in the Copa del Rey final to Real Madrid, thanks to Gareth Bale, Madrid's absurdly fast new transfer acquisition who shined much more brightly in his first season in Spain than Neymar did. In the match, Neymar would injure his foot and was expected to miss the rest of the season. On his twitter page, he changed his image from his Barcelona shirt to his Brazilian number 10 one.
May 2014: Fully fit at last, Neymar travelled back to Brazil soon after the end of Barcelona's campaign. Barcelona went without a major trophy for the first time in years, leading to their first-year manager's resignation. Neymar made a substitute appearance in La Liga's Final To End All Finals against Atlético, but was unable to score. The draw meant Atléti won the La Liga title on Barcelona's home field.
But all of that was over. It was time to focus on the World Cup.
June 2014: The World Cup had started. From the moment Brazil were announced as hosts as the 2014 World Cup, this was always going to be the tournament where the country expected their king to yank out Excalibur and slice his way through to a sixth world title. No pressure, kid!
Entering his first match, Neymar had what had become his textbook look, the fauxhawk short on the sides, long on top and in back, not quite spiked up but swirling around. In the opening match, Neymar scored twice in Brazil's come-from-behind win.
June 2014: At which point Neymar said "Fuck it. This is my tournament, I'm going out like a rock star" and changed his hairstyle again, dying the long parts an ostentatious peroxide blond. His two goals in the opener removed all the pressure that would only have mounted until he did tally his first scoring strike. With that expectation met once again, Neymar thought being himself and enjoying the tournament was more important than projecting an image on the thin line between cool confidence and arrogance.
So here we are. It's pretty self-evident that the changes atop Neymar's head reflect what's going on inside of it, but the remarkable thing is just how little change there actually seems to be. Neymar comes off like a thoughtful kid who thrives under the attention and pressure he's received since first awing fans back in his early Santos days, one who is cognizant and protective of his reputation—as shown by his less outrageous cuts when the world's eyes were more regularly fixed on him—but never loses confidence, no matter the situation, and never shies away from the lofty expectations his great talent inspires.
Photos via Getty and AP