Neymar is expected to play a pivotal role for Brazil in the coming World Cup—but can he do it successfully without having played in Europe?
On Wednesday in Montevideo, Uruguay, the newspaper El Pais held its annual gala for the presentation for its awards for the best in South American soccer. Chief amongst the luminaries in attendance was Santos and Brazil international striker Neymar.
The 20-year-old was accepting the paper's award for South American player of the year, and he once again had to answer the question he's had to answer for the last few years: when will you move to Europe?
According to Neymar, the answer is still not before the 2014 World Cup. His contract with Santos runs through that season, and the striker once again said that "it is not yet the time" to make the move across the Atlantic.
If Neymar truly believes this, then he is naive to say the least.
I made reference to why I believe that Neymar should make his move to Europe sooner rather than later in my preliminary preview of the Confederations Cup draw, which I posted last month. Now I'm going to go a little deeper into why he might be staying and why he's making a colossal mistake by staying in Brazil.
The biggest problem with his staying in Brazil is that it is starting to stunt his development. In watching some Santos matches this year, it seems to me that Neymar is coasting. He's making all the same moves and doing all the same things he did last year.
That would be great if he were 28 or 29, but he's still 20 years old. Granted, the things he did last year were amazing, but the fact is that if he were really developing he would be topping what he did last year. Our jaws should be even closer to the floor than they were when he scored the 2011 goal of the year and all those other fantastic goals in the Brazileiro.
The man that he is constantly compared to, Barcelona's Lionel Messi, has done just that. Every time we think we've seen him slalom by six defenders and beat the keeper with a sensational shot, he beats another six in a completely different way and leaves us wondering what it must be like to possess that level of skill.
The problem with watching Neymar is that I don't get surprised by him anymore. He is doing the same things, and they are incredibly impressive things, but they're still the same. His game is stagnating, and the only way to open avenues for more development is a move to Europe.
With a move to a European club, he would no longer be going up against the high defensive lines that are so characteristic of Brazilian soccer and that allow him to slice through the attacking third at will. He would also find himself playing against opposition that is both more physical and higher quality. It's one thing to be playing striker against the likes of Sao Paolo's Rhodolfo or Corinthians' Chicao. It's entirely another to suddenly be facing down the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, Mats Hummels or Vincent Kompany.
When he does have to face those elite defenders, he won't have the referee's whistle to fall back on. Brazilian refs are notorious for blowing for a foul at the slightest of contact—and often when there is none at all, especially in Neymar's case. European officials—especially in places like England and Italy, where the defense is generally more physical than in the rest of Europe—are not so quick to halt play.
Neymar's reputation as a diver—a habit that even Pele, who was famously criticized last year for claiming that Neymar was better than Messi, has said he has to tone down—will go with him wherever he eventually plays, and European referees won't let him get away with simulation as easily.
One way or the other, he is going to face down top European defenses without a favorable official as cover. The question is whether his first extended taste of them will be next year in club play, where he will have the chance to get used to them, or in the World Cup where it will all be new to him.
He will already be going in with a slight disadvantage in that Brazil, having automatically qualified as the host nation, will be going into the tournament playing two solid years of friendlies save the Confederations Cup, which will last a maximum of five games. It's not the kind of preparation that he needs to face up against some of the world's best defenses in elite international competition.
The reasons for his move to Europe are numerous and convincing. So what's keeping him on the west side of the Atlantic?
Much has to do with marketing. Brazil is, of course, hosting the World Cup in 18 months' time, and having one of the world's brightest stars on a Brazilian team going into the Cup holds a huge amount of marketing potential. Neymar's is sure to be one of the most-seen faces leading up to the Cup, and the rest of the world will view him as part of the host's package. Many Brazilians have openly stated that they view it as imperative that he remain in his home country until the World Cup.
Another factor is one of national pride. The country has a rich history in the beautiful game, but Brazilian fans have become sick and tired of seeing their country's best players play in Brazil for a few years before going off to the better competition—and huge paychecks—that the European game has to offer.
It's a point of pride in Brazil that this incredible talent has stayed in Brazil so long when so many others like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Alexandre Pato and more recently Oscar have all bolted to European clubs at an early age after very little time with Brazilian clubs.
Santos president Paulo Schiff was quoted as saying, "In 30 years, no other Brazilian club has been ale to keep onto a great player except us with Neymar...we want him to have a great career with Santos like the King Pele in his heyday."
It's nice to be proud of your achievements, and obviously Schiff thinks that keeping Neymar so long has been a major one, but the fact of the matter is the contract he signed is a huge hamper to his team.
With Neymar being paid a salary similar to what he would be receiving in Europe, Santos' ability to supplement him has been severely hamstrung, and Santos has suffered as a result. While they won their state league in Brazil's two-tierd system, the Campeonato Paulista, they were eighth on the 2012 Brasileiro and lost in the semifinal of the Copa Libertadores to arch-rival Corinthians. It will be up to their results in the Copa do Brazil as to whether they play in a continental competition at all in 2013.
If Neymar plays in the 2014 World Cup and dazzles, he could easily garner Santos a transfer fee in the realm of what Real Madrid paid to Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo. If he fails to impress against superior competition, however, he's likely to be worth far less (although still a substantial amount of money, at bare minimum €40 million to €50 million if he goes on the continent).
So to recap: Neymar's staying in Brazil is not helping his own development, not helping his club in the short term, and potentially risking it's fortunes long-term. That means that either the pressure of national pride (and marketing dollars) to stay is very, very strong or that Neymar thinks that he is a good enough player to lead the Brazilian front line in 2014 without experiencing a European defense—or that someone else has him convinced that he is.
If it's the former, he has to buck up and do what's right for him, not necessarily what's going to make the people of Brazil happy. He may get criticized for leaving, but if Neymar is able to use the year he could spend in Europe before the World Cup to familiarize himself with what it will take to succeed against the elite European defenses he will have to overcome and then leads Brazil to a record sixth World Cup championship on home soil, everyone will love him again anyway.
If it's the latter, then he truly is naive. The one time he's been faced with a back line approaching the caliber that he will face in the World Cup in a competitive setting, the 2011 Club World Cup final, he was totally locked out save for a one-on-one with Victor Valdez in the 57th minute that he lost out to the Barca keeper.
Yes, Barca seems to defend with attack, but their back line in that match included Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol—both players who may feature prominently in a potential matchup of Brazil and Spain next year.
When Pele made his frankly preposterous remark last year that Neymar was better than Messi and that Messi simply "had more experience," he got at least half of it right. Messi has the experience against the elite defenses of the world that Neymar simply doesn't have. And if Neymar wants to lead his country to glory on their home soil, he's going to have to get that experience against the game's elite.
You can hold me to this: if Neymar doesn't get that experience between now and the Cup, Brazil won't win it.