“Neymar’s happiness blows me away. The guy plays without any pressure.” – Xavi Hernandez
Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Falcao, Jairzinho, Socrates, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho: Brazil has produced some incredible players down the years. And while Edson Arantes do Nascimento – or Pele to you and me – is indisputably the greatest footballer of all time to emerge from South America’s largest and most populous nation, there can be no denying that Neymar is the best the current Selecao crop has to offer.
Born in February 1992, the youngster from Mogi das Cruzes in the state of Sao Paulo has gone on to become one of the world’s leading players. Portuguesa Santista were Neymar’s first club after the seven-year-old and his family moved 75 miles south to Sao Vicente, with the former international star spending four years with the Briosa while also playing futsal – an indoor, smaller-sided variant of football – at the same time. In 2003, he joined the youth ranks of Santos; the club recognised his remarkable talent early on and did their utmost to ensure he fulfilled his potential at the Estadio Urbano Caldeira – Real Madrid unsuccessfully tried to lure him to Spain at the age of 14 – with Neymar rewarded with a relatively sizeable salary even before he had made his debut for the first team.
That maiden appearance for the eight-time Brazilian champions arrived in March 2009, with a 17-year-old Neymar featuring as a substitute as Santos beat Oeste 2-1. He became more involved in the weeks that followed, finding the back of the net in victories over Mogi Mirim, Santo Andre and Palmeiras, and ended the season as an integral part of the Peixe’s squad. He then went on to make 60 appearances in all competitions in 2010 as Santos won the Campeonato Paulista and Copa do Brasil, with Neymar and his close friend Ganso providing some youthful zest to a side that also featured Juventus left-back Alex Sandro, Real Madrid right-back Danilo and Lazio forward Felipe Anderson.
The economic setup of the modern game means it is common for talented South Americans to flock to Europe as soon as interest emerges, but Neymar decided to bide his time before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, he would remain at Santos for another three seasons: in 2011, he scored 24 times in 47 appearances as Muricy Ramalho’s charges won the Copa Libertadores by beating Uruguayan outfit Penarol in the two-legged final; the following year, he hit a remarkable 43 goals in 47 appearances, helping Santos claim the Recopa Sudamericana; while in 2013, his final campaign in his homeland, he found the back of the net on 13 occasions before making the move to Europe midway through that season.
Barcelona was his destination, the Catalans paying €86.2 million to bring one of the most exciting young talents in world football to the Camp Nou. The then 21-year-old made his competitive debut on the opening day of the 2013/14 La Liga campaign, replacing Alexis Sanchez as a second-half substitute in the 7-0 thrashing of Levante. It took Neymar a while to get going as he attempted to adjust to the Spanish game, with Barcelona keen for him to bulk up in order to better cope with the physical demands of the division. The Brazilian still turned in a number of fine performances in his first year, though, even if Tata Martino’s side endured a disappointing 10 months, finishing second in La Liga and exiting the Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
Things got significantly better in 2014/15 for both club and player: Barcelona secured a treble of La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey under the guidance of Luis Enrique, with Neymar contributing 39 goals – including efforts against Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus – across all three competitions. The tricky forward had always been a superb driller with excellent close control and an ability to go past opponents as if they were not there, but Neymar proved in this campaign that he could also be extremely productive in front of goal. It was pleasing to watch his evolution throughout the season, and he ended it a far more complete and well-rounded player than he was at the start.
One of the main reasons why Neymar’s decision to join Barcelona was widely considered a sensible one – aside from the obvious fact that they are one of the biggest clubs in Europe – was the presence at the Camp Nou of Lionel Messi; the Argentine will always be the main man at Barca, so Neymar could, to an extent, develop in his shadow and avoid being the primary focus of attention. In 2015/16, however, he was required to step up when Messi was sidelined for two months with injury, and he did it very well indeed: Neymar was frequently unplayable in the first half of the season, and ended the year with 24 La Liga goals and 12 assists to his name.
While Barcelona’s lofty position among European clubs matches Neymar’s place among the planet’s leading players, the same cannot be said for his national team; Brazil may be the most successful country in World Cup history, but the current side counts on Neymar as their sole world-class talent. The ex-Santos man made his debut against the United States in 2010, with the following year’s Copa America in Argentina his first tournament showing as Brazil were eliminated by Paraguay in the last eight.
The pressure on Neymar’s shoulders at the 2014 World Cup was sizeable, with the Barcelona forward always likely to be essential as the hosts attempted to win the competition for the sixth time. An injury sustained in the quarter-final clash with Colombia proved to be fatal, though, and Brazil crashed out in embarrassing fashion – Germany ran out 7-1 winners in one of the most memorable matches of all time – without Neymar in the semi-final. They again demonstrated their reliance on him in the subsequent two summers: without the suspended star, Brazil were knocked out by Paraguay in the quarter-finals of the 2015 Copa America, before failing to even advance beyond the group stage of the 2016 Copa America Centenario as Neymar opted to take part in the Olympic Games instead (the Selecao did at least win the gold medal in that).
Brazil are likely to be just as reliant on him when the 2018 World Cup rolls around. By then, though, Neymar will probably be even better than he is today.