I was in Brazil during this year’s World Cup. The Brazilian national team jersey was being sold everywhere – you could easily buy the jersey in any store in the country. What struck me was that 90% of the jerseys for sale had number 10 on the back. It’s the magic number in the football-loving nation of Brazil. You don’t wear this number if you are an average player – this number belongs to players who can lift the nation, who can create something out of nothing on the pitch, who can bring smiles to poor people in the toughest favelas of Brazil. This number was given to Pelé, Zico, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and now it belongs to a young man from São Paulo, Neymar da Silva.
Coming from Campeonato Brasileiro Série A in 2012, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior was more well known in Brazil than in Europe. Having dominated Brazilian football for a few years, in 2012 Neymar decided that it was time to try himself on the European stage. The persistence of Barcelona and Real Madrid in vying for his signature alerted the world of football, and pundits started to take notice of this young, marketable, and skilled footballer.
It is believed that Real Madrid tabled millions of Euros for his signature, but Neymar decided that Barcelona would be his new home, and he chose perfectly. There is no other big team that can give him a chance to develop and shine humbly.
Barcelona went through a transition last season, involving a lot of off-field issues that affected both Neymar and the team. The details of his transfer weren’t clear, and it took away from his focus on the field. But we knew there was talent there, and we knew that with the right manager, hard work, and focus, he would develop into a world-class player.
At times last season Neymar looked lost on the pitch, as if he didn’t know the right decision to make, and he was very careful not to get in the way of Mr. Untouchable, Lionel Messi. Neymar understood the code of conduct in Barcelona: play as Messi wants and you’ll be fine; annoy Messi and you will be out of the team, no matter how talented you are. Barcelona is built around Messi, and that won’t change any time soon.
Neymar showed great leadership skills during the 2014 World Cup, before picking up a bad injury in a match against Colombia. There is one thing about Neymar that a lot of footballers don’t have – a high level of confidence whenever he plays. It’s no surprise Dunga decided to hand him the captaincy of the Brazil national team. Don’t forget that he is only 22 years old, and that to be the captain of the Brazil national team is no joke.
The hope of Brazil – to bring back the respect that was lost after their shambolic 2014 World Cup performance – has been handed to Neymar, and the boy is not scared. It seems like he lifts the nation whenever he plays. And to be honest, Brazil hasn’t had such an exciting player of this calibre for some time, since Ronaldinho faded out of the picture.
Neymar’s willingness to learn from Messi has started bearing fruit. He works very well with Messi, and we are now starting to see goals from him. He knows now that a lot of the goals he will score will come from Messi’s magic. This is already evident in the early stages of the La Liga season, since Messi created many of the goals that Neymar scored so far. Make no mistake, at 22 years old Neymar will only get better and better. He still has to improve and learn to stop making silly moves and falling on the ground every time he gets pushed. But it seems like those antics are decreasing, and we are now seeing a Neymar who thinks and cares about the team more than himself.
Much of the improvement we are seeing from Neymar has to be credited to Luis Enrique. Lucho has managed to motivate everyone in Barcelona. Whenever Barca players are on the pitch, you can see that they play for their lives – they know that no one is guaranteed to be in the line-up unless he works hard, and they know now that Lucho has the guts to bench anyone except Messi, as he has demonstrated this season. Neymar is no different here, as Munir, Sandro, and Pedro are all considered highly by Lucho, who regularly gives them chances to play.
One thing we can see clearly this season is that Neymar has finally arrived.