The day I saw Neymar and Brazil play live at the 2012 Olympics
Every little kid dreams of one day watching the famed Brazilian football team.
Every respectable adult yearns to one day witness the Olympic Games in their own nation.
Every giddy teenager invests love in a host of role models and wishes to one day meet them in real life.
On Sunday 29th July 2012, I achieved all three by watching the phenomenal Neymar in the sacrosanct yellow shirt during the football tournament of our home Olympics.
It was a sensational experience.
Football at the 2012 London Olympics
The idea to watch Olympic football at Old Trafford was hatched by a group of family, friends and myself months in advance. The prospect of watching a full-strength Brazil side practically on one's doorstep is too much to ignore.
When the day finally arrived, we made an early start, waking at 7.15 am and departing for the train an hour later. Our ride aboard the 08.33 from Bromborough to Liverpool Lime Street was filled with discussion about the day ahead. We were particularly fascinated by the prospect of watching two games in one day, the tribulations of Egypt and New Zealand preceding Brazil’s clash with Belarus.
Our arrival at Lime Street made clear the power and pull of sport and spectacle. A lot of people were out early, eager to grasp a unique opportunity. In the modern realm, Brazil have adhered to the Harlem Globetrotters’ model of attention, playing lucrative friendlies throughout the world in front of adoring fans and excitable admirers. Finally, they came to our neck of the woods, bringing out fans bedecked in the yellow, blue and green of class.
Much had been made about Britain's ability to deal with the additional burden on public transport throughout the Games, but despite a packed train devoid of air, our journey was brisk and timely. Once finally arrived, we walked the wet and dank streets of Manchester, taking in the susurrus of exhilaration, the blend of different cultures, the teasing glimpses of Old Trafford protruding between houses.
After stopping to purchase an official programme, we re-joined the surging splodge of humanity cascading down towards the stadium. There was a buzz of conversation, an excited anticipation, a pervading sense that we were part of something special. I made sure to take it all in, knowing that an occasion as rare wasn't likely to resurface any time soon.
Nearer to the ground, we experienced our first encounter with poor Olympic organisation. In an attempt to nullify the threat of bombs or guns or knives surfacing, the organisers insisted that each and every attendee empty all personal possessions into clear plastic bags. Such a requirement was annoying, time-consuming and ultimately pointless for said bag was subsequently left unchecked. We were, however, frisked and watched and questioned before finally being granted permission to scan tickets and climb the steps towards the green pasture of our attention.
Old Trafford during the 2012 London Olympics
We emerged into the daylight, into the Olympics, into the famous Stretford End. Ours was a sensational view, unimpeded and tinged with dramatic potential. It was a thrill to be situated in a stand of such profound stature in the pantheon of sport. We were part of the Stretford End. We were part of the building crowd. We were part of a Brazil match. As the players of New Zealand and Egypt warmed up below us on the immaculate green carpet, my feeling of satisfaction built. People from all manner of nations, all walks of life and all levels of dedication flocked into Old Trafford, plastic bags in hand. The sense of occasion built.
Mohammad Salah and Egypt at the 2012 London Olympics
For starters in this gourmet two-course meal, we were treated to the technicality of Egypt against the athleticism of New Zealand. I was intrigued to see what influence Bob Bradley had managed to impose on the Egyptian approach and mentality. I was similarly intrigued to see what New Zealand had to offer on this massive stage. I was completely intrigued.
In truth, the game meandered a little with tit-for-tat football daring us to fall asleep in public. The highlight was probably seeing Mohamed Salah perform with typical energy for Egypt, who scored late to force a 1-1 draw. It was a clean-spirited game, but one could sense an urging of the stars to arrive for our entertainment. We yearned for Brazil.
Rather than collect our belongings to leave after the full-time whistle, we instead stretched-out ready for a few more hours of football. Rather than worrying about negotiating the horrendous MetroLink, we instead put it on the back burner for later on. Rather than heading home, we instead prepared to witness Neymar and Brazil.
This alien concept of two games on one day, in one place, proved incredibly satisfying.
The ground staff reset the stadium as if this was an entirely different match on an entirely different day. The fans came flocking in for Brazil, perhaps putting an additional 4,500 onto the attendance figure. There was a fair number of native Brazilians among the influx, adding colour, verve, noise and energy to the day. Everyone was out for a fun time. It was exceedingly pleasant.
Neymar and Brazil at the 2012 London Olympics
Then, we saw him. At twenty years of age and playing his football for Santos in Brazil, Neymar, at that time, took on an almost mythical quality to British fans. Rather like the Lock Ness Monster, we heard of his exploits from sagacious others, but weren't entirely sure if something so magical could actually exist in reality.
We had played with Neymar in video games, watched him via dodgy internet streams and read endlessly about his assumption of Pele's mantle, but never really got close to him. On this fine day, all that changed. We were consumed by Neymarmania.
The exuberantly-haired bastion of magnificence was but the icing on the Brazilian cake. They brought with them a star-encrusted squad yielding giddy excitement: vivacious Marcelo, sagacious Juan, imperious Thiago Silva, energetic Fabio, operative Sandro, sizzling Oscar, probing Ganso, explosive Hulk, cosmopolitan Alexandre Pato, and Neymar. He needs no superlative.
Brazil 3-1 Belarus, Old Trafford, 2012 London Olympics
The distant strains of both national anthems relented into the whooshing vocal appreciation of their fans. The ground roared and swayed to the thunderous imploring of “Bra-sil! Bra-sil! Bra-sil!”
It was loud. It was eclectic. It was a taste of South America in northern England.
Amid such a rare atmosphere, we also received a taste of the footballing style so synonymous with Samba culture as Brazil stroked the ball around with ease and imagination.
The nimble, probing athleticism of Oscar and Ganso and Neymar was matched only by the graceful ticking of Sandro and Pato and Hulk. Even in this relatively meaningless Olympic tournament, Brazil rose to the occasion, making this game of intricate complexity look so simple.
I can pay no greater compliment.
However, maybe they were too relaxed, too confident and too laid back. Ignoring the meticulously-written script, Belarus had the brazen temerity to take the lead. That very concept may shock readers, but not as much as the actual manner in which their opening goal was scored.
It was a smooth and beautiful goal, its genesis an exquisite ball over the top controlled poignantly on the chest of a Belarussian winger. A side-foot out wide and a neat exchange of passes led to a wicked cross near the far post, attacked with a phenomenal header that flew beyond Neto in the Brazilian goal.
A reward for their bravery, a token of their skill, a moment of their lives, this goal paved the way for thoughts of a major Belarussian giant-killing, but said giant did not panic. Brazil, in control of thought and context, recognised that they have experienced such adversity before, that as the grandest scalp in world football, they have received opposition and challenge unlike most nations. Thus did Neymar begin to incrementally increase the tempo, making his side at once more tantalising.
At such a renewed pace, it didn't take much intensive probing to pick the amateur lock of Belarus. In actuality, it took one inspired moment of instinctive movement and one compatible cross from wide to restore order to the world. The former came from Pato while the latter came from Neymar. The resulting downward header slithered under the goalkeeper for an immediate equaliser. Such is the simplicity of it all when you have skill and talent.
With that ability flowing more readily, Belarus found themselves in a thankless position. From this point on, they needed to give absolutely all they had, needed to strain every sinew, needed to chase with all determination, just to keep it close. Faced with a far mightier goliath, David was forced to conserve and attempt to avoid embarrassment.
The greatest skills of Neymar
Neymar didn't help that cause. Midway through the half, this majestic magician exploded from a leisurely pace to produce two amazing pieces of skill. A composed and dazzling overhead flick and control was eclipsed only by a stupendous Maradona Turn moments later as Neymar, evading the capture of three bamboozled Belarusians, illuminated Britain.
The second half of the second game was an exercise in conviction. Essentially, Brazil had dominion and autonomy over the entire outcome of this game; it was there for them to power emphatically to a finish, or coast smoothly to a win. Streaming towards the goal beneath us, they decided upon a pragmatically-sound amalgam of both, causing Belarus all manner of problems while conserving and recycling energy for greater tasks ahead.
Watching Neymar dictate and probe at close quarters was a true joy. A legitimate superstar, he has a measured mystique to all that he does, a honed aura of class about his being, and a defined wizardry to his behaviour. Like a showcase act, he ran and coaxed and teased towards the Stretford End of Manchester. With each run of complex and intricate technique, and with every wave of imagination, one felt that we were a step closer to witnessing something huge.
What Neymar did next had a once-in-a-lifetime texture. It was a moment that one can invoke in future pub debates and family discussions, a certifiable I was there when... kind of scenario.
It was predicated on an initial tumbling foul from a Belarussian on Hulk, resulting in a free-kick twenty yards from goal in a central position. A whoosh of excitement echoed around the stadium, the noise of the footballing fraternity anticipating a Neymar moment. Our Neymar moment.
He placed the ball on the turf. He stepped back, drew breath and steadied himself with trademark hair flickering gently in a breeze of hope. Lunging steps of suave sophistication formed Neymar's run-up before he whipped the ball with utter relaxation. As if imparted with the force of legend, the ball adhered to his plan, soaring and swerving with ferocious glee into the dying embers of the top corner.
Sixty-six thousand fans shot from their seats, howling in complete disbelief and in genuine appreciation of a prodigious talent. We were left gobsmacked by Neymar. Just how we dreamed it the night before. He had delivered exactly what we came to see.
This first taste of adoration from football's founding land served only to fuel his passion, whet his appetite and increase his sharpness. All were evident in what the exquisite playmaker produced for Brazil's third goal.
Inducing bemused reactions of great excitement, Neymar imaginatively controlled a soaring diagonal ball from Fabio with a pre-conceived, immaculate header through the legs of the Belarus right-back. Meeting the ball on the other side, he threw in a couple of burning step-overs and a Samba shimmy, splitting the remaining defensive residue in half.
A further body swerve was compounded by a deft, heeled pass into the path of an intelligent run from Oscar. In awe, we watched as the Chelsea man swooshed inside and powered home high into the roof of the net for a sublime goal.
I was left utterly astonished by the skill and execution of these little Brazilians.
In the realm of history, and in my mind, this will be maintained as a special day. The day I watched the mercurial Neymar play live. The day I enjoyed first-hand the football of Brazil. The day I went to the Olympic Games in my home country.
We may never get that chance again.