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The Planet Neymar, Part II: A Trip to Madrid

He is now a Barcelona superstar, but a very young Neymar once made a trip to the club's biggest rival, and his story could have been way different today

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

When Robinho arrived at Real Madrid in 2005, the club started taking an interest in Neymar. He was thirteen years old. It was no mere coincidence. Arriving in the Spanish capital alongside Robinho was the Brazilian football agent Wagner Ribeiro. He knew Neymar Jr. every bit as well as president Teixeira and the legendary Zito. He'd been introduced to Neymar Sr. by Roberto Antonio dos Santos, aka Betinho, the kid's first coach. A man who'd been investing in Neymar from the time he was twelve.

From the moment Robinho reported for duty at Real, the two clubs - the white-clad bastions of world football in the 60s - had been discussing the next item on their agenda. Signed from Santos for US$ 50 million, Robinho debuted for Real during the 2005-2006 season, the same year Argentinean Lionel Messi graduated to first-team football at Barcelona.

Robinho arrived in Spain at the start of the season and made his first appearance for the club in August after considerable drama at the negotiating table - history that would repeat itself years later when Neymar signed for Barcelona, albeit under different circumstances. Santos refused to sell him for less than the sum stipulated in the release clause of his contract. Real Madrid would have to pay a US$ 50 million buyout fee or they couldn't have him.

Robinho argued that, as he owned 40% of his own contract, he could foot his part and the Spanish giants would "only" have to deposit US$ 30 million into Santos' account. The case wore on and the player decided to go on strike until the squabble was resolved. He didn't play for a fortnight and won the tug-of-war; or part of it at least.

The Brazilian club agreed to release him from his contract on the condition that Real Madrid pay the entirety of the 60% owned by Santos. The other 40% belonged to the player, who agreed to waive his right to US$ 20 million. Robinho was anxious to play in Europe, and had decided to negotiate his part with Real at a later date.

Off he went. Wagner Ribeiro went with him, eagerly telling anyone who would listen that Real Madrid could have a young firebrand on par with the super-talented Argentinean Barcelona had just unveiled to the world. Messi had moved to Spain at age thirteen. Neymar was arriving at the same age. The Spanish capital's dream team had succeeded in bringing the pre-teen promise to charming Madrid. At the time, another Neymar, the boy's father, was working as a mechanic for the Santos Traffic Company, earning roughly one thousand dollars a month. The family lived in a rented house in São Vicente. Neymar Jr.'s dream of moving up in the world, of working and training alongside the Galácticos at Real Madrid, would come at the price of being away from his family and friends, not to mention of having to adapt to the vicissitudes of life in Spain. The chance to work with and learn from the world's best and most famous footballers was simply extraordinary, and the fact that he would be staying at Robinho's home was a mitigating factor. Training at Real, he was able to meet the likes of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos.

Neymar Jr., like any other kid who got the chance, had his picture taken with all of his heroes. There were some striking moments with Robinho, his idol from Santos, and with Ronaldo. He played and also watched Real play, savoring victory after victory from the stands, even though it was Barcelona, Real's archrival, that took the Spanish league title that year.

For nineteen days the boy experienced the glamour of watching Real Madrid at the emblematic Santiago Bernabéu, secure in the knowledge that he was a star in the making, a sense buttressed by association with the greats of the Spanish game. Over the course of his trial, he scored 27 goals, leaving Real Madrid's youth team coaches drooling on the sidelines. Yet despite the apparent advantages, the kid still had his doubts. He wasn't convinced that Real Madrid, with its all-white strip, like Santos', was the best direction for his career. In a not-so-distant future, would there really be space for him in a squad brimming with superstars acquired at astronomical prices? Or would he, like so many others before him, be forced to accept a plan B and be loaned off to a lesser club, such as Granada and Rayo Vallecano, where perhaps his destiny of becoming one of football's greats would elude him? What was the best course of action for an impoverished boy like him: stay in Spain, close to the major footballing hubs of Europe, or head back to Brazil?

Neymar wasn't happy in Spain. Unlike Messi, who was more introspective, the Brazlian was outgoing and chirpy. He loved spending time with his friends, singing and dancing. His doubts and unhappiness tormented the whole Silva Santos clan. But the decision had been made: no matter how much his parents sensed that the best thing for him was to return to Brazil, Neymar would have the final say. As it would in so many decisive games he would play in the years to come, the responsibility fell on the boy's shoulders.

The Planet Neymar is a new series with stories about the Barça superstar's journey from the book "Planet Neymar: A Profile", by Brazilian journalist Paulo Vinícius Coelho.

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