No one outside of a very tight circle knows exactly how much FC Barcelona paid for Neymar. That fact is a worthy reflection of his mythical status in world soccer.
The 21-year-old officially became a Barcelona player on Monday, signing a contract which runs until 2018. What happens between now and then will help answer the questions on everybody’s minds: How good is Neymar currently? How good can he be? Can he be as good as, or even better than, Lionel Messi? Should he have gone to Europe sooner than he did, or did he leave Brazil too soon? Will he meet expectations or fail miserably?
Neymar burst onto the Brazilian soccer scene in 2009 when he debuted for Santos at the tender age of 17. Within 28 months, he was a Copa Libertadores winner (Santos’ first since 1963 when Pele led the way) and widely recognized as the best player playing outside of Europe. His highlight-reel goals brought fame, fortune and inevitable eight-figure transfer bids from some of Europe’s richest clubs. He’s a pop-culture icon in Brazil and an idol to legions of fans. Yet, his celebrity status (and the lifestyle that comes with it) never blew his career off track. This bodes well for him ahead of his big move.
Neymar’s early career achievements may have come far away from the bright lights of Europe’s leading clubs, but they still are considerable and impressive. He is a Santos legend, as his 138 goals in 230 games make him the club’s leading scorer in the post-Pele era. He’s already a key figure on Brazil’s national team, despite being just 21 years old. Seasoned observers of the Brazilian game say he is the biggest talent they’ve seen in a generation, and the comparisons to Pele are plentiful.
It was Pele who gave Neymar the most useful advice before his European move. In February, he told Neymar what it takes to reach the top, delivering his message in the form of stinging criticism.
“He is an excellent player but he doesn’t have any experience outside Brazil,” Pele told newspaper Estado de S.Paulo. “In every game he plays outside Brazil, he doesn’t do well. Everybody thinks Neymar can solve the Selecao’s problems, but he isn’t ready for that burden. We have a great deal of confidence in him but he has become a regular player for the national team.”
“We think that he is the best in the world, but he is more concerned about appearing in the media than playing for the team.”
“Neymar has a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders. Right now his major concerns are fashion and his haircut.”
Pele is no stranger to adulation, and he knows how it can negatively affect a young star — even one with Neymar’s exceptional talent. Brazilian soccer players have spent the better part of the last four decades trying to trying to live up to his legacy. A select few have come close, but all have failed to take his throne for one reason or another. Pele’s advice will serve Neymar well at Barcelona. In fact, it might be the only way he’ll meet those lofty expectations at the Spanish club. The Barcelona squad is full of stars, including the brightest of them all (Messi). Neymar won’t walk into that dressing room on July 1 and start calling the shots. That will hold true when he takes the field in competitive games.
Barcelona will provide the perfect launching pad for Neymar’s European career. He joins a club that plays in a style with which he is familiar. While he must adapt to the tactics and speed of the Spanish game, his technical skills are ready-made for the big stage. The hopes of Barcelona fans around the world won’t be resting on his shoulders, at least at the outset. The long shadow cast by Messi and friends will give the Brazilian phenom the time and space he needs to grow into a leadership role at his new club.
Neymar’s Barcelona challenge is formidable. He wants to win soccer’s biggest prizes and join a list of Brazilians who are legends at the Nou Camp. Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Romario set the standard which he hopes to exceed, and there’s little in Neymar’s story that suggests he can’t do it. His high profile in Brazil gives critics an easy target, but that “image” was built on a foundation of substantial soccer success. That success was the result of genuine talent mixed with a commitment to his profession. Neymar enjoys a lavish lifestyle, but he is no party animal. His two-year transfer saga is a reflection of of the way soccer business is done in this day and age (complicated) rather than self-abortion on his part. By many accounts, he has a calm and thoughtful personality. His father serves as his agent and confidant, keeping him grounded as his career blossomed at a dizzying speed. Neymar is also utterly devoted to his infant son. There’s no reason to believe that this kind of young man won’t fit in with the close-knit Barcelona squad.
Barcelona paid Santos and other parties anywhere from £31 million ($47.5 million) to £61.5 million ($94.3 million) — depending on who you ask — for Neymar. The Spanish club is betting that Brazil’s biggest star will fulfill his promise while wearing its colors. There’s no guarantee that will be the case, but Barcelona’s Neymar bet isn’t a silly one. Like all players, he comes with a risk. Unlike other players, there’s a chance that Neymar’s European reality will match his Brazilian myth, which will be a great thing for the beautiful game and its fans.
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