In 2005, José Ely de Miranda walked into the office of Marcelo Teixeira, then president of Santos FC, armed with the perfect retort in case they were there to discuss a big-name signing for the coastal club: "You have to see this boy!" Miranda was in charge of the youth teams at Santos, the teenage and pre-teen prospects that train at the academy in hope of someday turning pro (which very few do). Miranda went down in the annals of football as Zito, a winger who won nine São Paulo State Championship titles, two Club World Cup with Santos (in 1962 and 1963), as well as a pair of World Cup crowns with the Brazilian national team (in 1958 and 1962).
Zito was also legendary for never cowing to a certain teammate named Pelé, and for being the only man with the gumption to order the world's best-ever player to fall back to help the defense, mark an opponent or pick up the pace of play. On Miranda, the greatest essayist Paulo Mendes Camps wrote: "Zito is a messenger between two worlds: the world of life, in the opponent's box (where mysteries of pleasure reside) and the world of death, in the box of the Brazilian heart (where painful mysteries linger)". At seventy years of age, his enthusiasm still bubbled as it had when he was lining up alongside Santos legends such as the dapper goalkeeper Gilmar, the utility man Lima (who played several positions) and the left winger Pepe, the owner of a formidable strike. Zito - who together with Didi formed one of the most important midfield duos in the history of football - was enthralled by the football of a boy sixty years his junior.
At the time, Santos was revelling in the precious discoveries of Robinho (who went on to play for Real Madrid, Manchester City and AC Milan) and Diego (a journeyman in Europe's big leagues, having played in Germany and Italy before moving to Atlético Madrid, in Spain), a second generation of "Meninos da Vila" (Vila Belmiro Boys) that restored the club to a position of respect, especially after winning the 2002 Brazilian Championship. Even with Santos being hailed as the team to watch, "seu" Zito (an affectionate form of sir or mister), as Neymar Jr calls him to this day, wanted more; much more.
In the beginning, president Teixeira did not share Zito's enthusiasm, telling him that, as the lad was only ten and Santos' lowest age category was Under-13s, there was nothing to be gained from seeing him play. It would be the best to let the boy mature a little. But Zito would not be deterred: it wasn't just imperative that the club sign the kid, Santos had to create new categories for him to develop in. It was not a decision to be taken lightly. It involved a lot more than simply taking a chance on precocious talent (one that might fizzle out in the future); it meant investing in a whole infrastructure of junior division in order to take that chance. Early in 2003, Teixeira finally gave in and agreed to see the kid in action. "Let's take a look at this boy of yours!", he said, and they went to watch Neymar play for Gremetal, the metallurgical guild team in Santos. Unaware that the powerful club president was in the stands, Neymar's performance was discreet at best. "I didn't want to show too much excitement. I didn't want to make it look like I was thinking of sponsoring the boy. He played well that day, but nothing close to what we'd been expecting", recalls Teixeira.
A few weeks later, Zito insisted that Teixeira see Neymar one more time, and the president decided to watch him play in São Vicente (incidentally, the hometown of Robinho). This time, Neymar knew of the president's interest - Santos was consolidating its reputation as the club best able to milk its youth divisions. If he'd been off-color during that first game, this time around he was a hurricane.
"He knew I was watching. When I arrived, he wasn't intimidated. He blew the game away! Absolutely dominated! Dribbles here, a chip there, he pulled out all the tricks. The only reason he didn't make it rain was because the game was played at an indoor venue", said the man who presided over Santos FC between 1991 and 1993, and then again between 2000 and 2009.
After that day in São Vicente, Teixeira was a powerful backer of Zito's conviction that they had discovered a new diamond in the rough. The only question was how many carats: "Zito never spoke in terms of a new Pelé. We thought we'd come across a new Robinho."
Marcelo Teixeira was so enchanted by the boy that he agreed to meet the requests of the former defensive midfielder who, on June 17, 1962, brought a nationwide gasp of relief when, wearing the number 4 canary-yellow jersey, he rose to head home a crucial game-changer against the former Czechoslovakia, 24 minutes into the second half of the World Cup Final at the National Stadium of Santiago in Chile. Soon after, Vavá would boom in the final nail in the Czechoslovakian coffin. Brazil would win 3-1, becoming a two-time world champion. In short, the club would have to find somewhere to put that extraordinary boy. On Teixera's orders, Santos created the aptly named Meninos da Vila Youth Training Center. Any ten-year-old boy in town would now have somewhere to train, so long as it was for Santos, of course. Initially, the club began training boys even younger than this, but only in futsal.
"I didn't have the budget to invest in younger age divisions, and I told Zito as much. But when I saw the boy play, I realized we had to create an infrastructure to keep him. It wasn't just for him, but for a legion of young footballers who could later turn out for Santos." The new center was up and running within two months. It wasn't built for Neymar, it was built around Neymar.
The Planet Neymar is a new series with stories and articles about the Barça superstar's journey based on the book "Planet Neymar: A Profile", by Brazilian journalist Paulo Vinícius Coelho.