NEYMAR AND THE MOST CRUCIAL FIVE MONTHS OF HIS CAREER
19th November 2005 was the date. Estadio Santiago Bernabeu was the venue. Barcelona, fresh from winning their first league title in six years, were the visitors. Florentino Perez reinforced both attack and defence by his usual heavy spending. They were 1 point behind the visitors after 11 rounds in 3rd place. Barcelona themselves were 2 points behind surprise leaders Osasuna. The match kicked off and after 77 minutes, the reaction from the very demanding, yet very knowledgeable Madridistas was as iconic as the performance of the Magician from the Big River of South.
|Bernabeu applauds R10|
A subplot in the match was the battle between the purported next Pele, Robinho and the purported next Maradona, Messi, both of whom were making their El Clasico debuts. Messi comprehensively outplayed Robinho that night and, with hindsight, throughout his career. Despite his shortcomings with the Albiceleste, there are many pundits and professionals who put Messi as the G.O.A.T footballer. Your's truly is loath to call him by his name and prefers to use D10S instead. Robinho could never live up to the expectations of the club, which was already suffocatingly demanding during successful periods, that became even more demanding during their period of lull. He hopped from club to club, carving a nice career for himself but nothing close to what was expected of him as a teenager.
Brazilian footballers of the 90s and early 00s rarely went straight to the biggest clubs of Europe. They preferred to get used to the rigours at relatively smaller clubs and leagues. Romario began his European sojourn at PSV Eindhoven before his short stint at Camp Nou. He also recommended Ronaldo to follow the path he trod. Rivaldo started his stint at Deportivo La Coruña. Even Ronaldinho started in Ligue 1 instead of the more glamorous La Liga or Serie A. Robinho was directly thrown into the piping hot cauldron that is Santiago Bernabeu and although he had his moments with Los Blancos (winning a couple of league titles), he never really settled in Madrid and left after just 3 years.
Robinho became a cautionary tale to one of his biggest fans who had just joined Santos' famous youth academy. The 14 year old boy went on a trial at Madrid, scored goals for fun but like any teenager became homesick and his father nixed a more permanent deal. He continued to progress at Santos and was selected for the 2009 U-17 World Cup in Nigeria with another hot prospect who Inter bought and loaned back to Vasco da Gama. The kids couldn't inspire Brazil in Nigeria as they were humiliatingly eliminated in the group stages. It made the São Paulo kid doubt himself further. Nevertheless, Neymar dusted himself off and picked up the pieces to lead Santos to a Campeonato Paulista and Copa do Brasil double.
As his legend grew at Santos, the press clamoured for his inclusion for South Africa 2010. Pele and Romario urged Dunga to select him in the final 23 a la Ronaldo in 1994. There was also a 14000 signature petition from fans. Yet, Dunga refused, stating that young Neymar hadn't been tested enough at international level. His club career continued to burgeon as he led Santos to their first Copa Libertadores finals in 8 years. He won man of the match honours in the 2nd leg and made the São Paulo club continental champions after 48 years. Neymar led Santos to two further Campeonato Paulista titles but his time in Brazil was reaching a saturation point.
Real Madrid, once again, tried to sign him in 2011 but third party ownership became an issue and Neymar signed a new deal with Santos up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Barcelona finally prised him out of Brazil in a controversial (and illegal) deal and brought him to Camp Nou. A very successful four year period, both personal and team-wise, followed where he won every trophy there was to be won. There was a brief period in which he was more important than even Messi but he progressively regressed after running riot in the 4-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Ultimately, he decided that he could never grow out of Messi's shadow at Camp Nou when after scoring 2 and creating the winning goal in the last 6 minutes against PSG, it was Messi's iconic pose with his fist raised in a sea of supporters that was remembered more. After having flirted with PSG the previous summer, he decided to join them when they activated his release clause of €222 million. He has had his issues with Cavani, Unai Emery, the usual fits of petulance but by and large he has been meeting expectations in Parc des Princes. PSG lead Ligue 1 by 12 points with 13 rounds left. They are in the quarterfinals of the Coupe de France and final of the Coupe de la Ligue. His 22 goals & 11 assists being vital.
All of this only reinforces the Big Fish in a small pond stereotype. Last season a sub par performance against Ludogorets Razgrad meant that PSG finished second in their group and drew Barcelona in the round of 16. This season led by Neymar, Cavani & Mbappe, PSG scored a whopping 25 goals in 6 group stage matches including a 3-0 evisceration of Bayern Munich at Parc des Princes. PSG's reward for such excellence is a meeting with two time defending champions, the other giant of Spain, Real Madrid. The Football Gods really do have a wicked sense of humour. It is time for Neymar to deliver for what he was paid nearly a quarter of a billion Euros to do: the Ol' Cup with Big Ears or at the very least a deep run of semifinal or beyond.
After scoring in each leg from the quarterfinal onwards in Barça's treble winning season, Neymar's performances in Europe also regressed. He scored just 7 goals in the whole of two seasons after having become the first non-Messi, non-Cristiano top-scorer in UEFA Champions League since his compatriot Kaka in 2007 albeit level with the aforementioned duo. This season (6 goals) he has nearly matched the output of the last 2 seasons in just the group stages. As the going gets tough, Neymar has to get tougher. He did it once for Barcelona scoring decisive goals in the two cup competitions of 2014-15 and he must do so again almost exactly 3 years later.
As undoubtedly successful Neymar has been at club level, his country career has been mixed angling towards the bad. On a personal front, he has scored 53 goals in 83 matches and trails only Romario (55), Ronaldo (62) and Pele (77) in the list of top goal scorers for Seleção. Only 17 of those goals have come in competitive matches as Brazil didn't have to go through the brutal CONMEBOL qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup as hosts. But otherwise the narrative has been a mix of petulance, multiple-match suspensions, red cards and missing his biggest match thus far, the 7-1 defeat to Germany, through injury.
His first tournament for Brazil was the 2011 Copa America. He scored just 2 goals and was the first player taken off in the quarterfinals against Paraguay as Brazil were eliminated on penalties. The 2nd tournament was the quasi-exhibition FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil. Brazil, now under Scolari, romped through the tournament, crushing the defending World Champions Spain 3-0 in the final. He also won the Golden Ball in the process. The curse of the Confederations Cup champions struck a year later as a very emotional home side collapsed under the sky-high expectations against Germany. Neymar literally broke his back carrying his national side and missed the rout but even before that he couldn't find the net in the knockout rounds.
His 2015 Copa America campaign ended in utter ignominy after he was red-carded against Colombia. He was suspended for a total of 4 matches after remonstrating against the referee. A Neymar-less Brazil were eliminated on penalties for a second time running by Paraguay. In 2016, the CBF, after a request from Lucho, let Neymar skip the Copa America Centenario and picked as one of 3 over-aged players for the Rio Olympics, after initially wanting him to play both tournaments. Brazil huffed and puffed through the group stages (they opened with 0-0 draws against South Africa & Iraq) with Neymar coming under heavy criticism. However, Neymar led the home team to the final and scored the winning penalty in the shoot-out to give Brazil her first ever Olympic gold medal in men's football.
Neymar's switch to PSG clearly shows he is ambitious and wants to be a top dog and cares enough to leave a legacy for the future. He also wants to end up as Brazil's top goal scorer. With both PSG & Brazil, Neymar has the squad to etch his name in history but he has a tendency to be moody and petulant when things do not go his way. The top European clubs and countries have the ability to make things difficult for him to let his latent petulance take its own course. It is imperative that he maintains a cool head more than anything else for his teams to succeed. A gruelling campaign and a calm head stands between Neymar and the greatest glory. Will he be able to see his teams through? Or will the petulant side win again? A most interesting 150 days await us.