While some of the greatest forwards of the modern era like Rivaldo, Romário, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho left an incredible impact on European football, Denilson (de Oliveira Araújo), Robinho and Keirrison served as warnings for young Brazilians as they moved to Europe with huge promise and potential but ultimately failed to deliver.
Neymar, at just 19 years of age, now faces a career defining decision with Pelé, the man who initially wanted Neymar to stay at Santos until after the World Cup in 2014, now calling for the youngster to move to Real Madrid this summer.
Neymar was born in the municipality of Mogi das Cruzes in São Paulo on 5 February, 1992. Growing up, already with notable natural ability, Neymar combined his love of futsal (with Academia de Futsal do Liceu São Paulo) with street football and at just 11 years of age, he was spotted by Santos and signed a youth contract in 2003. The rare exception to a Brazillian footballer not beginning his career at his local state team is Ronaldo, who began his career at Cruzeiro rather than his local Flamengo (not by choice). So, due to the fact Neymar lived so close to São Paulo based club Santos, he joined the likes of José ‘Pepe’ Macia, Pelé and Robinho in starting out his career at Peixe. Those standouts join other future Brazilian internationals like Coutinho, Clodoaldo, Diego, Elano, Alex (Rodrigo Dias da Costa) and Ganso – who have all come through Santos’ renowned youth system in the past few decades.
Like so many of Brazil’s wonderkids over the years, Neymar was handed his debut at an early age. It came at 17 years of age in a thirty minute cameo against Oeste in the Campeonato Paulista on 7 March. Even in these thirty minutes alone, what would become Neymar’s trademark confidence was visible in a cheeky cross-shot from the edge of the box - which narrowly went wide. Further confident displays followed and just one month after Neymar’s professional debut, Pelé made the bold prediction that Neymar would go on to eclipse his achievements. Interestingly, Neymar was younger than the likes of Garrincha, Romário, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Robinho when they made their respective debuts so it drew huge attention.
However, even before Neymar’s debut, his potential had not gone unnoticed with massive media attention placed on his dazzling displays for Santos’ youth team. With the huge media presence in Brazilian football, even at a youth level, it was not long before Neymar was dubbed the new Robinho due to his already brilliant dribbling ability, lightening pace and acceleration, and his ability to play through the middle and on the flanks. However, Neymar’s cool finishing and vision has led to closer, and more favourable, comparisons with Garrincha rather than Robinho. While Santos went on to finish a disappointing 12th in the national Brasileirão, the excitement generated by Neymar and Ganso in their first seasons at Peixe led to the Santos faithful believing they had found the modern day equivalent of the 1960s golden era when Pelé, Coutinho and Pepe fired Santos to unprecedented success.
Considering he was just 17 and in his first season of professional football, Neymar’s return of 14 goals in 48 games was encouraging in 2009. However, with the loan coup of club favourite Robinho and the arrival of promising new manager Dorival Júnior, much pressure was placed on Santos in 2010 to deliver their first trophy for six seasons. Neymar, although in the company of one of Europe’s biggest names, stole the limelight and led the Meninos da Vila (Ganso, Robinho, Neymar and André) by example with 14 goals and 7 assists in 19 games in the Campeonato Paulista – which helped win Santos this regional title. His lethal finishing led to him winning the best player award at the tournament and this blistering form coincided with Dunga’s preparations for naming his World Cup squad in May 2010. A huge media campaign began in Brazil, including a 14,000 signature petition, but Dunga refused to call up Neymar or Ganso.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as a rigid and conservative Brazil limped out of the tournament in the quarter-finals to the Netherlands with a lack of youth, flair and pace cited as some of the reasons why. Neymar, in the meantime, helped Santos win the Copa do Brazil and just a month later, scored on his Brazil debut, under new manager Mario Menezes, against the USA on August 26, 2010. Unlike previously hyped Brazilians like Lulinha, who was shackled by inconsistency and huge expectations, Neymar had a degree of consistency to his game and has maintained this season by season. While it seemed Neymar could do no wrong, few young footballers are without initial flaws. Two noticeable problems were highlighted in his first full season in 2009. The first was his diving and even though this is at times part of South American football, Neymar constantly made a spectacle when he was tackled, rather than making the often wiser choice of continuing his run.
The other major flaw, which at times went hand-in-hand with his diving, was Neymar’s attitude. The prime example of this was when Dorival Júnior insisted that Marcel rather than Neymar take a penalty (incidentally that Neymar won) against Goianiense on September 15, 2010. The main reason why Dorival Júnior wanted Marcel to take it was because Neymar’s’ trademark’ Panenka penalty failed dramatically only a month earlier in the Copa do Brasil final against Vitória (to go with his previous two misses from the spot). Dorival Júnior’s insistence on Marcel led to Neymar turning his back on his manager, being restrained by the linesman and then arguing with his captain Edu Dracena. Dorival Júnior then sought to suspend Neymar for fifteen days, which would have included the Clásico against Corinthians, but the board sided with Neymar and sacked Dorival Júnior. While Neymar has since apologised for the incident and has kept his temperament in relative check, questions about his attitude remain.
Despite these flaws, Neymar has always had long-term European admirers since he turned professional. However, this was little more than scouting reports and media speculation until Chelsea made a concrete bid of £22 million in August 2010. Santos would only settle for £30 million, which ironically proved too much for Chelsea, and Neymar decided against moving to Europe that summer. After all, 2010 was his first full professional season in Brazil. Instead, refreshingly, he decided to sign a new five-year contract with Santos which will expire in 2015. It led to Neymar being praised by the Brazilian media as a patriotic hero but a significant pay rise certainly had an influence on him staying. Neymar went on to end his both brilliant and controversial 09/10 season with a magnificent 42 goals in 60 games.
2011 has given Neymar a new platform: the Copa Libertadores. It is one of the world’s most famous and exciting competitions and was another reason why Neymar decided to stay, as he had yet to play in the tournament. While the Brasileirão has become increasingly competitive with players like Luís Fabiano and Lucas (São Paulo); Jorge Valdivia and Gabriel Silva (Palmeiras); Andrés D’Alessandro and Rafael Sóbis (Internacional); Alex Raphael Meschini and Adriano (Corinthians); Ronaldinho and Thiago Neves (Flamengo); as well as top managers like Muricy Ramalho (Santos); Paulo César Carpegiani (São Paulo); Luiz Felipe Scolari (Palmeiras); Jorginho (Figueirense); and Vanderlei Luxemburgo (Flamengo); the Copa Libertadores has provided the unpredictability, intensity and competitiveness that South American leagues, on their own, seem to at times lack.
After all, despite Boca Juniors’ dominance, there have been six different winners of the competition in the past ten years, with two of these coming from Brazil (São Paulo in 2005, Internacional in 2006 and 2010), two from Argentina (Boca Juniors in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2007, and Estudiantes in 2009), one from Paraguay (Olimpia in 2002), one from Colombia (Once Caldes in 2004) and one from Ecuador (LDU Quito in 2008). Neymar, while not as prolific this season, has been crucial to Santos’ success. With Robinho now at Milan, and Ganso missing large parts of the season with various injuries, the weight of expectation has been placed firmly on Neymar’s shoulders – to lead Santos to their first Copa Libertadores title since 1963. Ganso’s anterior cruciate ligament injury in his left knee, which occurred against Grêmio on August 26, as well as his thigh injury, suffered against Corinthians on May 8, have left Neymar without a creative inlet for much of the season. Added to this is the fact that Neymar has played as an inside forward on the flanks, to accommodate Zé Eduardo up front. Although Elano has certainly provided goals, he made just one assist in the Copa this season.
Neymar has had to deal with fatigue too. In 2009, at just 18 years of age, Neymar played a whooping 60 games for Santos in all competitions. In 2011, with his international commitments and the Copa Libertadores, this will increase. He played in the biannual 2011 South American Youth Championship in January and in between the Paulista and the Copa Libertadores group phase, he jetted 9474 km to the Emirates to star for Brazil against Scotland – netting both goals in a 2-0 win on 27 March. By scoring 3 goals in his first 2 international games, albeit in friendlies, Neymar joined an exclusive group with Pelé and Romário as the only players to score 3 goals in their first 2 international matches for Brazil.
So far in the 2011 season, Neymar has netted 10 goals in 26 games for Santos. This is still a decent strike rate at 1: 2.6 but in comparison to last season’s total of 42 goals in 60 games, 1: 1.42, Neymar has not been anywhere near his prolific best for Peixe. However, the goals he has scored have been vital – particularly in the Copa Libertadores. Neymar, relishing the platform, has enjoyed the tournament for the most part and finished as Santos’ top scorer with 6 goals. Although Neymar struggled to escape the shackles of veteran right-back Darío Rodríguez against Peñarol in the first-leg of the final, the 19 year old dazzled on the left-wing in the second-leg with a goal and an assist. It is worth noting that Ganso was fit for the second-leg and his vision, unselfishness and brilliant passing range certainly benefited Neymar. However, in typical Neymar fashion, controversy was not far following brilliance. After the game, a mass brawl broke out between the players and some fans. Neymar was caught on camera about to stamp on a Peñarol player and was also seen kung-fu kicking another.
This will be a momentous summer for Neymar. He will lead Brazil’s attack in the Copa América – the first major international tournament of his career. Neymar also looks likely to leave his homeland but the experience of his close friend Robinho serves as a warning. Even though Robinho left Brazil for Real Madrid a ‘veteran’ at 21 in 2005 and won a title with Madrid and Milan, he did not have, and never developed, the temperament or mentality in Europe to replicate his Santos performances.
Still, with Santos placing a £40 million price tag on Neymar’s head, and Chelsea and Real Madrid interested, Neymar may not be able to resist the chance to prematurely prove that he is the world’s hottest property.