Lionel Messi was 13 when he joined Barcelona. There was no stampede for his signature, and the deal he signed on a napkin was not the culmination of endless speculation—nor was his arrival at Camp Nou met with teen-idol hysteria.
Messi didn't choose his best option; he chose his only one. Barcelona were the sole club willing to pay for the growth hormone treatment he needed, and—as it would turn out—in their show of faith, the European football landscape was altered forever.
"I needed money for my medicine to help me grow and Barcelona were the only club that offered. So as soon as they did, I knew I had to go," Messi told Match of the Day Magazine, as per The Guardian.
That was in 2000. In the 12 years since, Messi has risen to become the greatest player of his generation—leading Barcelona to a gluttony of success at home and in Europe, and three times being named the best player on the planet (2009, 2010, 2011).
Would they have won the five Spanish league titles, two Spanish Cups and three Champions League titles they have during Messi's reign?
Of course they wouldn't. That's not to say the teams of Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola would have gone empty-handed, because even without Messi they boasted squads comparable to any in Europe. But how many times have we watched Barca when Messi turned out to be the difference?
It's a thought that brings us to Neymar—the man many consider to be Messi's natural heir and whose looming choice of European club may prove the defining decision for the decade to follow.
Neymar's circumstances are wildly different from those Messi faced in 2000. The 20-year-old Brazilian is already a household name and a relative veteran of 23 international caps for the most alluring of football nations.
He's hero elect at Santos—following in Pele's footsteps—and is widely regarded as the most exciting young talent in world football.
A move to Europe is inevitable, which explains why Neymar has been an obsession of the gossip columns for three years now. Everybody knows he's coming, but nobody knows for sure when, or which shirt he'll be wearing.
Neymar's countryman Dani Alves is among the many hoping he joins Messi at Barcelona—a deal Graham Hunter, writing for ESPNsoccernet, believes has already been done.
Where will Neymar end up?
"I am looking forward to seeing Neymar and Messi play together. He would fit in very well. Barcelona will arguably have the two best attackers in the world with him."
It's a mouthwatering prospect. But so is the notion of Neymar linking up with Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, Eden Hazard at Chelsea, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie at Manchester United or the likes of David Silva and Sergio Aguero at Manchester City.
All have been mentioned as possible destinations, as have big-spending Paris Saint-Germain—with Metro reporting the possibility of a world-record £85 million bid in January.
There's also been the suggestion Santos will hold out until after the 2014 World Cup, but with Neymar's market value soaring, it's hard to believe they'll be able to resist for three more transfer windows. The cash, as they say, is as good as on the table.
In exchange of it will come potentially the best player of his generation. A sparkling talent who has all the assets to dominate the European game and take his chosen team to new heights—not just on the football field, but in terms of their global brand, too.
Neymar really is football's next golden ticket.