Left-leaning and loved by Brazil fans: How Richarlison became the anti-Neymar

Richarlison and Neymar embrace - Getty Images
Richarlison and Neymar embrace - Getty Images

"God bless you golden boy," says the hand-scrawled message on a No 10 shirt that Richarlison framed and now treasures at home. The jersey had been handed over by Neymar Jr after the then Everton forward struck two goals on his Brazil debut. Four years on, and those encouraging words were not lost on Richarlison as he was ushered to doping control in the bowels of the Lusail Stadium for a routine sample on Wednesday night.

He had just executed that glorious scissor kick which will endure through the generations, but, while waiting inside the empty room for his bladder to fill, his first thought was to phone Neymar and check on his right ankle injury. “I told him to put a lot of ice on it, to recover as quickly as possible - I think that’s the most important thing," Richarlison said. “When I get to the hotel I am going to go and see how he is doing.”

Richarlison and Neymar are diametrically opposed political beasts that love one another nonetheless. The Socialist Lula is back in power after a dramatic about-face in Brazil, yet left-leaning Richarlison finds himself swimming against the tide in a dressing room largely supportive of the outgoing president, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro.

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This World Cup has been framed by many back home as an opportunity to reclaim the yellow shirt after Neymar, in particular, prompted anger by appearing in videos backing Bolsonaro. Last month he posted a TikTok set to a pro-Bolsonaro song and mimed the No 22, the politician's polling number for the election.

Richarlison, in contrast, has been cast by the left as a "paragon of virtue", a supporter of social justice, having spoken out on topics such as racism, poverty, gender violence, LGBT rights and environmental destruction. "Whenever there is an important cause, I will always show my face, even more so playing for the Brazilian national team and in England," he said in 2020.

"I know I have this visibility and that authorities will see it with good eyes." Despite their political differences, Richarlison insists Neymar "is a likeable guy.” Richarlison tells a Discovery documentary: “He's someone I admire a lot, a real idol for me. On the pitch, it's wonderful to play with him because he's always there to put us in a clear goal situation.

"I admire him so much. Whether you like it or not, Neymar is an ace, a standout player, so we do everything to make him feel good." However, Neymar - who has 75 goals for Brazil, two short of Pele - is no longer the reference point for the team for the next two matches at least due to his sprained ankle.

Instead it is Richarlison, a previously unfancied figure with a dramatically contrasting background, that will carry the hopes of a nation against Switzerland on November 28. Nine goals in seven games for Brazil - compared to just two for current side Tottenham this season - explain why Richarlison says about the yellow shirt: "I think it really suits me. From the moment I put on the Selecao jersey, I felt good. I score goals, I make assists, I do it all for this jersey. I hope it stays that way." While Neymar heralds from a lower middle class background in Brazil, Richarlison was one of five siblings living often in poverty in the rural town of Nova Venecia, in the state of Espirito Santo.

Richarlison of Brazil speaks to the media during a post match interview after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group G match between Brazil and Serbia - Richarlison: 'Neymar is my idol, I admire him so much' - Hector Vivas/Getty Images
Richarlison of Brazil speaks to the media during a post match interview after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group G match between Brazil and Serbia - Richarlison: 'Neymar is my idol, I admire him so much' - Hector Vivas/Getty Images

There have been stories of him selling ice lollies to help his parents pay the rent while his friends were lured into drug dealing. His endless running and appetite for hard work - he was seen practising the exact same swivel volley in training ahead of his effort against Serbia - has helped him become central to coach Tite's plans.

"As our professor Tite says, 'you are smelling goals'," was Richarlison's explanation when asked how he was being coached to be so prolific on the international stage. Brazil's system, with marauding wingers and a roaming playmaker behind him, plays to the 25-year-old strengths as he repeatedly justifies his new-found status as the first-choice No 1 option ahead of Gabriel Jesus.

But few had expected him to emerge as the standout star. Neymar was already an established world star by Richarlison's age, with Champions League and multiple league winners' medals. Yet, while now 30 and still dogged by criticism that he can sometimes flatter to deceive, it is the underdog, the man who made it via Vicarage Road, who has fixed his eyes on lifting the World Cup.

He spoke earlier in the week of "six more games" from fulfilling his life ambition. Nobody who knows him well is surprised to see him thriving. "I'm happy for him," said the France captain Hugo Lloris, who has seen his relentless work at Tottenham despite a stop-start campaign.

"He's probably the least fancied player of the team but he is a fighter and showed the part of genius that is in him."