Most football historians know that Brazilian sensation Neymar da Silva Santo Junior got his start in the same hallowed haunts as his Portuguese-speaking forbear, the one and only Pele. The only difference is, with today’s media centres concentrating money in certain markets, only the richest clubs in the world can afford to selectively nab top-level international talent from every corner of the earth. (Chances are good that if Pele had played today, he would too be playing for the glamorous and glitzy football behemoths in Europe.)
History aside, it bears taking stock of Neymar’s career in La Liga, now almost two full seasons at Camp Nou. How has the Brazilian attacker fared in the face of sky-high expectations, not just for the present – coming over and adapting to arguably the best league in the world from a subpar level of competition – but for the future ceiling of his perceived potential that is just brimming over the top?
Comparison with Bale
Let us start with the most obvious point of comparison. Both came over to La Liga at the same time, both came well-hyped as the next generation of uberstars in the world, and both came at a similar cost. How have the two fared comparatively, taking into account all things? Let us delve into the numbers.
Each has an advantage by season, and just looking at their numbers over two full seasons, their output is almost equal. His first season, Bale averaged over one goal or assist (1.13) over 90 pro-rated minutes played, which is mighty impressive. In fairness to him, his last season in La Liga has been injury-ridden; this explains why he has generally been less consistent.
Neymar did not find as much success as his Welsh counterpart at Camp Nou during his first season, which is not to say that it was a failure – far from it. He was three years younger than Bale during the offseason they were signed, so the signing was looked upon something for the present and especially for the future. After adjusting to a different pace, physicality, and skill level in La Liga for his second season, and after finding chemistry with Messi and playing off of Suarez, who fits the attacking triumvirate seamlessly, the Brazilian attacker picked up his goals plus assists over 90 minutes rate to just under one (0.95) in his second year. While team success was harder to come by the prior season, Barca now stands on the brink of a treble with just a win against Juventus needed to seal the deal. An already historic season could become even greater, and Neymar would no doubt play a key role in that.
Overall, Neymar’s been more reliable over the two seasons while showing improvement. This is an extremely positive forecast for the Catalan side. Bale, on the other hand, may not have that much time left for Real given that he is not a fan favourite and has already had a choppy season for a team that has a short fuse for anything less than results. Only time will tell, but with the two having almost exactly equal output for goals plus assists, only separated by 0.01, their performances have been close, with the only difference being that their trajectories seem to be reversed as Neymar stands to continue improving.
No doubt about it: Neymar is a fan favourite and media darling for good reason, and we are not just talking about his hair (although that by itself is a pretty compelling reason and has been the source of much spilled ink already). While his stardom keeps growing off the pitch with lucrative endorsements with industry-leading companies such as Nike and online poker site PokerStars, the footballer who was recently voted the most marketable athlete in the world is also making it happen between the lines.
Yes, the faux-hawked forward has a flair for the game that seems to be prototypical of the Brazilian way of making the beautiful game more beautiful. With his quick change of pace, his flair for dekes, fakes, turns past his defenders, Neymar is just flat out fun to watch manoeuvre in space.
It comes naturally to him, and it is evident that he knows how to have fun out there with his teammates, in spite of being under the pressure-cooking microscope. It does not hurt that they are winning heaps of games, and as they say, winning tends to create pretty good chemistry. He has already helped his team win the Copa del Rey and La Liga, and among his individual awards, he has reached 50 goals with the Blaugrana rather quickly, in just 87 matches.
The legend of Neymar grows only larger now that he is on pace to be part of the highest goal-scoring trio ever to grace the game of football, set to beat the record of 118 goals the Ronaldo-led threesome of Real Madrid set a couple of seasons ago. As of their 3-0 drubbing of Bayern Munich during the first leg of the Champions League Semi-Final, Messi, Neymar, and Suarez together had 111 goals, with just a few more needed to break the record.
Their chemistry is self-evident if you simply watch the games and their body language, but listening to their quotes outside of the game is telling too. By all accounts, they really enjoy each other’s company. Neymar even called Messi his best friend. With 39 assists between the three, it is no wonder they are clicking on all cylinders and want to stay with their club in their current situation, despite the swirling trade rumours.
Unfortunately, the club is under investigation for potential financial mishandling of some things, notably Neymar’s transfer. In addition to that, economic vice-president Javier Faus recently admitted that ‘it will be a challenge but we want to avoid letting Messi, Neymar or Suarez go... but, if a club has the potential to take them away because of their chequebook, then they will go.
Only time will tell what the future holds for Neymar, but if he gets his wish of being ‘very happy playing for Barcelona,’ then he will have a long, continuously successful road to walk at Camp Nou, indeed.