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.
Much like Holland, Brazilian football places the main bulk of its hopes on youth, so youngsters are often thrown into the deep end before their chins have even begun to sprout a few pathetic hairs. Precociousness is something to be celebrated, not confined to stagnation in the reserves or on the bench, meaning that Neymar was given the platform to show off his artfulness as soon as his professional terms were agreed. Of course, with youth comes impudence, and the new darling of Santos possessed an abundance of it. Though football is a team game, Neymar is the type of player who will only pass the ball if there is no conceivable way of setting on a path towards the goal, frequently opting to dribble through a crowd of bodies, miraculously emerging from an assault of boots, elbows, and shirt-tugging with the ball still in his possession. At times, his tendency to take on the world proved to be frustrating, but, more often than not, he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.
Ostentatious behavior aside, Neymar proved to be more than capable in front of goal by his second season, rattling in 42 goals in 60 appearances, a tally that any seasoned professional would be proud of. After a thrilling campaign, he came in third for the 2010 South American Footballer of the Year, behind Andres D’Alessandro and Juan Sebastian Veron. His ascendency in Brazil became international news, and the globe quickly became enamored with Neymar, who was making a name for himself on You Tube with skill compilation videos amassing thousands of hits every day. In the ensuing two years he would be linked with all the major players in the transfer market, particularly Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea. It was reported that Roman Abramovich was willing to pull out all the stops to sign Neymar, and talks of a £50 million transfer were circulating via the Internet before the player had even reached 20.
Eventually, Santos would accept two bids for their prized asset, and though the identity of the bidders were not revealed, anybody with a passing interest in the speculation knew that it was Los Blancos and their tiki-taka rivals who were the frontrunners. Real’s president Florentino Perez was willing to move heaven and earth to sign Neymar, but in the end the starlet chose Barcelona because they appealed to his footballing principles.
After completing his “dream” move for 57 million euros, he said: “Money is OK but happiness takes priority. We decided to come to Barcelona. I had a lot of offers but I followed my heart.”
Now, the tantalizing prospect of Neymar linking up with the world’s best player Lionel Messi is no longer a fantasy, but an impending reality. But will the match that is seemingly made in heaven become true romance? After all, though Neymar may have bewitched crowds on the South American continent, he will find the task of stamping his authority on the European game much more arduous, and will have to graft harder than he has ever done before in order to impress the expectant support at the Nou Camp. Barcelona have lived a charmed life in the past four years, and though they have definitely lost some of their gloss since the departure of Pep Guardiola, they are still widely considered to be the most effective side on planet earth when they are in full swing.
Having suffered an embarrassing exit to Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the Champions League, where they were brutally thumped 7-0 on aggregate, the team will be aiming to recover and get back on their saddles quickly in preparation for the campaign ahead of them. This means that everyone will have to be on top of their game, playing to the height of their capabilities in order for the Barcelona passing carousel to get back in motion once again. Though Neymar is young and still very much learning his trade, he will have to return on the mammoth investment the club put into him pronto, and he must not be intimidated by his price tag. There will be no place for him to hide if his performances are lackluster, and opposing teams will be quick to try and unsettle him, applying physical tactics to try and stifle his game. Though La Liga may not be as rough as the English or German leagues, it is certainly a far cry from Brazil and Neymar will find himself nursing a wound or two after a ninety-minute duel with defensive units that will be more than happy to give him robust treatment.
Alongside adaptation, another daunting challenge that faces Neymar is Messi. The day he signed, Neymar said he had no worries about the challenge of being the best player in the world because he was already playing alongside him. This is without doubt true, and nobody expects the youngster to usurp the Argentine’s barely disputed position amongst the footballing gods any time soon, but only time will tell if they will be able to gel with one another and develop a relationship that will strike fear into their adversaries. Recently, Johann Cruyff, former player and coach of Barcelona, expressed his concern at the acquisition of Neymar, saying: “Messi and Neymar? Two captains on one boat doesn’t work.”
Speaking to Spanish newspaper Marca, the Dutch football legend went to on to question if Neymar was the type of player the club really needed.
“We must wait and see how he goes,” Cruyff said. “Is he necessary? You could agree or not. We are not talking about his footballing quality, I have not seen him, but if they talk about him like this, it is because he is a good player.
“But creating a team is different than signing a player…the Germans showed they have that mentality, that the team is an important thing.”
Cruyff’s words could not be more true, and though he is well known for being a critic of Sandro Rossel, the president of FC Barcelona, he is speaking from sense as opposed to bitterness. Neymar is unquestionably a splendid individual athlete, a possessor of unique dexterity with the ball combined with a strong ego that all great players need to excel, but his attitude is questionable. He is notorious for throwing tantrums when things do not go his way, and there have been reports of rifts with fellow teammates at Santos. In 2010, he fell out with his former manager Dorival Junior over a dispute about who should be the designated penalty-taker. After a spat that took place during the Copa do Brasil final of that year, Dorival Junior demanded that Neymar be suspended for two weeks, but the board promptly sided with the player and sacked the manager.
Allied to this, Neymar has developed a notoriety for simulation, and has been labeled as a diver in his own country. At times, he has been accused of going to ground too easily, attempting to get opposing players sent off instead of continuing his run with the ball and going about the game honestly. Though diving is certainly common in Spain, excessive theatrics will not be tolerated for very long by fans and officials, and Neymar will not want to be famed for his theatrics. If he can iron out the petulant side of his game, people will be able to focus on his good points, preventing him from being hounded by a media that tends to be rather ferocious in Europe at times.
The road that lies ahead of Neymar is long, but full of promise. Having only turned 21 in February, there is plenty of time for him to sharpen his qualities, whilst also acquiring new ones along the way. He is in a privileged position that other contemporaries can only dream about, having moved to a special club that most professionals would give their right arm to play for. With the sporting and commercial clamor for him more covetous than ever, the sky is the limit, or perhaps he will break through the stratosphere and one day take his place alongside Pele, Maradona, and Beckenbauer in the cosmos of footballing royalty. Right now though, he is still a pretender, a gamble that could be taken out of the showroom and onto the scrap-heap if his fluorescent boots, zany haircut, and fancy-dan chicanery prove to be a superficial ruse to hide the true weaknesses beneath.