Journalists spent countless hours debating Neymar’s future, covering a multitude of topics in the process; from possible transfer destinations to comparisons with all-time greats, and as is almost always the case, public opinion of the Brazilian superstar is very much split down the middle. There are some who are convinced that he is the "real deal", destined to reach the pinnacle of the sport; while others take a more cynical approach, arguing that the "hype" surrounding the clamour for his signature far outweighed his actual ability – and at face value, it was easy to see why so many believed this to be true. He hasn’t played in Europe, he hasn’t featured in the World Cup; so, in the eyes of many, Neymar was something of an unknown quantity – a gamble if you will.
With four goals in five matches, Neymar collected the Adidas Golden Ball as the Best Player in the 2013 Confederations Cup – and deservedly so. Displaying a dazzling array of tricks, flicks, and most importantly, goals; Neymar was influential in Brazil’s success, earning himself four Man of the Match awards in those five appearances.
In almost every match, in almost every aspect, Neymar was the stand-out player in a fantastic tournament – and yes, it wasn’t the World Cup, and it wasn’t the UEFA Champions League, but make no mistake, this was no fluke.
With 52 goals in 58 matches, only two players scored more goals for club and country than Neymar in 2012 – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. At the tender age of 21, Neymar has already been crowned as the South American Player of the Year on two separate occasions (2011 and 2012), World Soccer Young Player of the Year (2011) and he has also been nominated for the FIFA Ballon d’Or twice – Neymar finished in 13th place in the voting for the 2012 Ballon d’Or, ahead of Mesut Özil, Sergio Aguero, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos, among others.
But isn’t just individual honours that have earmarked Neymar out as a tantalising prospect; just look at the influence he had on Santos last season.
Thanks to the timing of the 2012 Olympic Games and the Copa Libertadores, Neymar missed a staggering 21 matches of Santos’ Serie A campaign. In his absence, the Peixe won just four matches and scored eighteen goals – that’s a 19% win rate without Neymar – and with their superstar in the side, Santos registered nine wins in 17 matches (52%), scoring 32 goals in the process. Unsurprisingly, Neymar played a part in 22 of those goals, scoring 14 of his own, and provided eight further assists; In Brazil at least, Neymar has no equals.
Més que un jugador per més que un club?
Certainly, the summer transfer of Neymar to Barcelona seemed inevitable. Barcelona Vice-President Josep Maria Bartomeu confirmed the club’s interest in Neymar a few months ago, and since that day, the Brazilian had been constantly quizzed on his future – with all signs pointing to the Camp Nou.
Who indeed...from former players to current managers, everyone had an opinion on the ideal destination for Neymar – and it was unanimous, for Neymar to progress and reach his potential, he simply had to join Barcelona.
Back in October, the speculation reached a fever-pitch as a glance at the Barcelona accounts revealed that the Blaugrana had effectively set aside €40 million for a future purchase, including a €10 million fee which had already been paid over the course of the year. The documents didn’t shed any light on exactly what this €40 million pertained to, but as time elapsed, it became increasingly obvious that it was set aside specifically for the transfer of Neymar.
With roughly a year remaining on his contract with Santos, Neymar couldn’t possibly fetch the sort of transfer fee that some media outlets have been reporting. Sky Italia for instance suggested that Barcelona and Santos reached an agreement worth an eye-watering €92 million for the Brazilian prodigy – but a quick look at recent history would suggest that that figure was simply plucked out of thin air. Just look at the recent transfers of Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie; both left Arsenal with a year remaining on their contract for £25 and £24 million respectively – so why on earth would Neymar, a player who in all likelihood earned a lower salary at Santos than either Nasri or Van Persie did at Arsenal, cost €92 million?
Admittedly, the eventual transfer fee that Barcelona paid for his services wasn’t that much lower; thanks to the involvement of Real Madrid – and a number of third parties who were all keen to cash in on their slice of Neymar’s economic rights – the Blaugrana ended up paying a staggering €57 million – some €17 million more than they had budgeted. It was a special case for a special player – which unfortunately served to increase the pressure on the diminutive Brazilian.
As a result, the typical questions were asked in the run-up to this Confederations Cup: Would Neymar be able to cope with the expectations? Could he stand-up and deliver in the face of extreme pressure?
Yet, as the tournament drew on, the questions evolved – no longer were we asking if the pressure would affect Neymar, we were wondering where it went – such was his composure in the opening few matches. For Neymar, it didn’t matter whether or not the world was watching and judging his every move, because with the home crowd behind him, and a plethora of superstars in support, he was enjoying his football – arguably for the first time this year.
With a smile on his face, and a spring in his step, Neymar put Japan to the sword with an early goal in Brazil’s opening group stage match, following it up with another volley against Mexico in Fortaleza. Left foot, right foot; it didn’t matter – and nor did it matter if Neymar was the one on the score-sheet either, as the 21 year-old selflessly assisted Jô’s second goal in as many games after a tremendous piece of individual skill freed Neymar from the challenges of two Mexican defenders.
Not even Italy could keep Neymar in check as this time he did the damage from two set-pieces, playing a part in Dante’s opener before adding a sensational second that left Gianluigi Buffon helpless in the Italian goal. Three games, three goals, three Man of the Match awards. A spirited semi-final performance from Oscar Tabarez’ Uruguay appeared to slow Neymar’s momentum down just a little, although the Brazilian still found a way to influence the result, teeing up both of Brazil’s goals in Belo Horizonte – try as they might, no-one could find a way to silence the Barcelona-bound striker.
However, if anyone was going to do it, it would have to be Spain. After all, this was a Spanish side that had kept eight successive clean sheets in knock-out competition, thanks in large part to its four-man defense, which consisted of two players from Real Madrid, and two players from Barcelona. Surely the likes of Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, and future Barça teammates, Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba would find a way to stop Neymar in his tracks?
Not a chance.
In fact, by the end of the first half at the Marcanã, Neymar had scored one goal, and at least influenced the other as – from a Blaugrana perspective – the first-half went pretty much to plan. In contending with Neymar, Alvaro Arbeloa had played arguably the worst 45 minutes of his career, and Iker Casillas had not fared much better either, being beaten in the 44th minute – at his near-post no less – by a thumping left-footed shot from the Brazilian boy wonder. With a subtle dummy in the opening stages of the second-half, Neymar created a chance for Fred, who duly dispatched his fifth goal of the tournament, securing an emphatic win for the hosts, which was compounded by a Spanish sending-off, as Gerard Piqué cynically brought down Neymar with less than 25 minutes to play.
After a difficult season, it was painfully obvious that Spain had no answers for Neymar’s trickery, and blinding pace. In one-on-one situations, the Spanish frequently looked to foul; stop play, and try their luck defending a set-piece; no matter the position, anything was better than an individual battle with Neymar. Perhaps the heat and humidity of Fortaleza played it’s part (Spain had just a few days rest after their epic semi-final clash with Italy after all), but take nothing away from Neymar: he was the one that forced the issue, he was the one that took the game to the tired Spanish legs, and ultimately, he was the one that made the difference for Brazil.
Sure, the hard-work has just begun. After all, players like Adriano have won the Golden Ball at this competition, only for their careers to spiral into anonymity and disappointment. It’s one thing to dominate a single competition and it’s another to dominate the domestic scene; yet on the back of this tournament, Blaugrana fans have every reason to feel confident. Even at €57 million, Neymar looks like he could be worth every single penny and the prospect of this phenomenally gifted player joining forces with Lionel Messi is the stuff of dreams. Finally, the Argentine megastar will have some credible support in the Barça frontline, while Neymar will undoubtedly benefit in his starting berth alongside the likes of Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
Perhaps most worryingly though for opposing fans is Neymar’s humility, and sincerity. In his first press conference with the club, Neymar pointed out that he is looking to "help" Messi maintain his status as football’s numero uno – and that he has "realised a dream" in joining the Blaugrana.
With a smile on his face and an all-star supporting cast, "O Rei do século 21" has arrived.