Being a prodigy in a footballing powerhouse of a country like Brazil is tough. Each and every time there is even a suggestion of above average talent, the rumour mills turns with a ferocity like no other and, before long, we’re told we’re looking at ‘the next Pele’.
In my quarter-century on this planet, that particular tag has been attached to more players than I care to remember and, so often, those players have failed to live up to these standards, or anywhere near. Denilson is one of the most famous examples. Transferred to Real Betis in 1998 for a then world-record fee of £21.5 million, he was expected to take Europe by storm having shone for runners-up Brazil at the World Cup in France that same year. His career would take a massive nose dive there-after. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo on loan within two years and would go on to be the most journeyed of journeymen, playing for clubs in places as far-flung as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam before ending his career at Greek minnows Nea Kavala in 2010.
The list of Brazilian players who have followed a similarly disappointing path is long, if not quite so spectacular. Robinho, Alexandre Pato, Kerlon and others like them have, at one time another, set the footballing world alight with the glimpses of talent that it was hoped would make them players to define a generation. However, in each of these cases, their stars have shone bright but burned fast, leaving many wondering what might have been.
The same excitement and prediction of greatness has surrounded the rise of FC Barcelona forward Neymar since his debut for Santos in 2009 at the tender age of 17. It’s easy to understand why – in his four years at the club, he would go on to score 54 goals in 103 appearances, winning 3 league titles, one Copa Do Brasil and one Copa Libertadores in the process. This success was echoed at international level. Having scored on his international debut in a 2-0 win against USA in 2009, he would go on to win an Under-20 South American Championship and a FIFA Confederations Cup in the same time frame, as well as earning a silver medal at the London Olympics in 2012.
And so, it was with the great expectation that has burdened many before him that Neymar signed for FC Barcelona in May 2013. Many would have been forgiven for thinking that he would follow a similar downward spiral as some of his compatriots, with it even being rumoured that the Barca club doctor thought he needed to gain weight in order to cope with the more robust European game following the move from South America.
It’s possible that he was on to something too. Neymar took until the 24th September 2013 to score his first La Liga goal, with it coming in a 4-1 win over Real Sociedad at Camp Nou. The rest of the season proved less than spectacular for the young Brazilian, with his goal tally totalling only 15 for his entire first season in Spain. This was the lowest goal total for the striker in his 4 years in professional football to that point (excluding his debut season for Santos), leading many to question if he had what it takes to have any real impact at a club the size of Barcelona.
Things were to change in 2014/15 however. With an astonishing 22 goals in 33 appearances, he was able to prove he was capable of more than just tricks and flicks. He made a massive impact on games, assisting and scoring as part of a triumvirate widely considered to be the most dangerous in world football, with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Not only that, he was the top scorer in the 2014/15 Champions’ League, scoring 10 goals in the 12 games that saw his team become champions of Europe for the first time since 2011. Furthermore, he became the first player in Champions League history to score in each leg of the quarter and semi finals and score in the final.
Of course, goals aren’t everything, but what can’t be denied is what they indicate. Neymar has, this season, shown himself capable of delivering when it matters. The signs were all there when, as the man upon whom a nation’s hopes were built, he was able to win the FIFA World Bronze Boot and earn a place in the FIFA Tournament Dream Team at Brazil’s home World Cup in 2014. And this is where we begin to realise that we should never have doubted his ability to succeed in Europe where others have failed. The difference beteween Neymar and some of those mentioned before is that he didn’t come to Barcelona on the back of hype alone. He was more than just a YouTube player, with League championships and continental cups to his name before he even put on the famous blue and red shirt. It’s clear that his first season in Europe was a tough one, but who else at such a young age would have coped with the cultural change he underwent in moving? Footballers, though we may forget from time to time, are human after all.
Of course, Neymar is still young. He’s achieved almost everything there is to achieve in the game and the only hope is that he won’t fall into the same trap as some of his compatriots. Where Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano lost motivation and focus much sooner in their careers than it would have been hoped, many will be willing Neymar to continue his current upward trajectory. Currently, he’s the only player who comes close to Messi and Ronaldo and has certainly achieved as much, if not more than both these superpowers when they were his age. Something tells me, though, that Neymar will continue to improve. This season, in particular, he’s shown a discipline and determination not found in some of the wonderkids who’ve been less successful and I, for one, can’t wait to see what he achieves in years to come.
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