Two weeks ago was an exciting day for football and could quite well go down as a date in history where another divine footballing marriage was sealed. That was the day when Brazil’s most prodigious talent since Ronaldo — Neymar da Silva Santos Junior — completed his long-awaited transfer to Barcelona.
Since his introduction to the big stage at the tender age of 17, when the scrawny forward was brought on for the last thirty minutes in a 2-1 win against Oeste, Neymar has experienced a level of fame that very few athletes of his age are subjected to (or afforded, depending on how you view it). Before he had even kicked a ball amongst the big boys of Brazilian domestic football, the hype surrounding this baby-faced whippersnapper from Sao Paulo was already permeating through the aisles of the Estadia Vila Belmiro, the home of Santos F.C.
Having developed a passion for futsal at an early stage, a form of “hall football” that is played even more frequently than soccer in Brazil, Neymar quickly learned the fundamentals of his country’s approach to the game. Futsal is played on a hard indoor surface the length of a five-a-side pitch, with a a smaller ball that has less of a bounce than a regular one. The game is played between two teams of five players, with the chief emphasis placed on skill, improvisation, and guile. Matches are played at a frenetic pace in a claustrophobic environment, where players have to think quickly and without hesitation. Futsal is a speciality of the Brazilians, and is rightly accredited for helping the national team to establish their world-famous panache that has bedazzled generations since the founding of the FIFA World Cup in 1930.
With this type of schooling, Neymar was gifted with a cultured perspective on how the game should be played, combining his futsal education with street football where he would have undoubtedly found out what it was like to be kicked from pillar to post by kids of lesser ability. Though futsal is a sport that many Brazilian youths participate in, there are always a few prodigious talents that have adroitness with the ball that comes as second nature. Not only did Neymar have it, he personified it. As he rose through the ranks of the Santos academy like a fledgling peacock, enjoying a highly successful youth career, money and celebrity were soon magnetized by Neymar’s allure, and by the time he was 16 he was earning 25,000 reais a month. Upon signing his professional contract at 17, sponsorships were queuing up in droves for the new golden boy of South America.
Without too much difficulty, Neymar soon established himself in the Santos first team, creating a rabid fervor amongst watching crowds whenever the ball was at his feet. Like his predecessors Ronaldinho and Denilson, he was not afraid to run head-on at opposing defenders, using a hypnotic repertoire of drag-backs, step-overs and flicks that left many in his wake, disoriented and left to figure out how they had been so easily bamboozled. In his debut season, Neymar racked up 14 goals in 48 games, which included the decisive goal in a 2-1 win over Palmeiras in the 2009 Campeonato Paulista semi-final.