February 2020 marked a unique milestone for Neymar. For the first time in six years, the Paris Saint-Germain forward decided to forego the delights of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval, opting instead to keep his head down and focus on training ahead of a crucial month for his side.
As the Brazilian superstar has risen through the ranks, his startling ability on the pitch has been matched only by his enviable flair for organising and participating in nocturnal activities. But he is far from the only footballer to succumb to the temptations of Rio’s bacchanalian blowout; until this year’s no-show, he was merely following in a long tradition of players letting their hair down in order to mark the start of Lent in style.
Carnaval, or Mardi Gras and Shrovetide as it is known elsewhere, is a celebration that stretches back to the Middle Ages. Devout Christians took the opportunity to engage in a final bout of excess and revelry before the 40-day sacrifice of Lent started in earnest – indeed, popular lore states the name itself derives from carne vale, in Italian ‘Goodbye meat’, in reference to the upcoming fasts.
While festivities continue to be held in Europe, including lavish masques and parades, it is in the Americas where Carnaval really took hold. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations are infamous for their scale and debauchery, while across the continent, from Mexico to Argentina and Uruguay, each nation has its own dances and traditions to mark the four-day celebration which ends on Tuesday.
Brazil, however, has by far the most famous Carnaval parties, centred on but by no means exclusive to Rio and its numerous Samba schools which for almost an entire week all but take over the city.
“It is a party in Brazil, rooted in our culture. These games that come in the middle of the holidays should not exist,” Guarani coach Wanderlei Luxemburgo noted when announcing this weekend that his entire squad would enjoy three days off to take in Carnaval. “They can have a beer and cool off. They should have fun.
“I love Carnaval and we will see if I take part in the parade.”
Others have had to work somewhat harder to convince their coaches for time off. During Romario’s time at Barcelona, the little sharpshooter sidled up to Johan Cruyff with his petition: to miss two training sessions in order to go back to Rio. The Dutchman was reluctant, but accepted the request on one condition.
“I told him, ‘If you score two goals tomorrow [against Osasuna] I will give you two extra days off than the rest of the squad’,” Cruyff recalled to reporters. “The next day, Romario scored twice and immediately came to the touchline to ask for the substitution. He said, ‘coach, my plane leaves in an hour.’
“I had no choice and I kept my promise to him.” Once the two days passed though, Romario did not report back to Camp Nou, leading to a frantic manhunt led by the club to track down their errant star. Romario was nonplussed, telling reporters back in Rio: “The boss gave me leave for holiday in Brazil, but he didn’t tell me when I had to go back..”
While the tradition of footballers attending the celebrations stretches back decades – Pele was a well-known aficionado, famously dancing with Bond girl Ursula Andress in the 1979 edition – the 1990s were perhaps the golden era for fun-seeking stars. As well as Romario, ex-Barca, Real Madrid and Inter wizard Ronaldo was a regular sight in Rio, although his nocturnal activity was by no means limited to that single weekend. “Some people remember my parties more than my goals,” he admitted to Antena 3. “People imagine them, but they have no ideas how good they were.
“President Florentino Perez once asked me, ‘why don’t you stay at home. Look at [Luis] Figo.’ I told him, ‘presi, if I had the wife that Figo has…’” Another Carnaval fixture was the notoriously erratic Selecao favourite Edmundo, who was later accused (and cleared) of plying a hired monkey with drink at his son’s first birthday party and convicted of killing three people in a drink-driving accident.
The international element, meanwhile, was provided by Diego Maradona, a lifelong Carnaval fanatic. In 1998 matters came to a head when Diego, Ronaldo, Romario and Edmundo pitched in together to hire out a luxury box looking over one of the Rio Samba schools; the exuberant Argentine, pictured balancing a glass of liquor on his head, told El Pais of his intentions to return to football with Boca Juniors or, failing that, to link up at Flamengo with Romario, “the best player in the world.”
At the turn of the millennium the party baton left by those illustrious names was picked up by the likes of Ronaldinho, who rarely let the rigours of being a professional footballer interfere too deeply with his love of revelry. Now, Neymar has proved a worthy heir to that tradition, even if he was forced to give this particular Carnaval a miss – and if the example of the above stars is anything to go by, the PSG man’s frolics will only heighten once he hangs up his boots and sheds other distractions.