Tuesday, February 5, was Neymar’s 21st birthday. He celebrated by showing off his skills to the English press at the Brazil national team’s training base in Barnet, and a photo of him holding a birthday cake later surfaced in the Daily Mail. But that seems to be as lively as it got.
Neymar, at 21, is no longer interested in childish play; he has long since matured from the spoiled, immature teenager who once pouted until his manager was sacked to a stylish millionaire who earns twice as much money as Theo Walcott, shakes hands with presidents and is the face of one of international football’s most fashionable and successful sides.
On Wednesday he’ll earn his 28th cap for Brazil when the five-time World Cup winners face England at Wembley. His every move on the famous ground will be scrutinized; the post-match verdicts in the Thursday papers will try to attach some sort of value to him based almost solely on his showing over the 90 minutes.
This is the way it is for one of the sport’s premiere talents, and it’s a shame. Neymar could score a thousand goals a year for Santos, but the European pressmen, already befuddled at his lack of interest in moving across the Atlantic, would persist in using his international performances as their primary barometer in measuring his ability. As if he had to prove something to them.
Since bursting onto the scene with Paulista side Santos in 2009, Neymar has quickly progressed from a wonderkid trickster to far-and-away the best player in one of world football’s more competitive leagues. Twice he has eclipsed 40 goals in a season, and he has led his club to three Paulista titles, the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Libertadores.
If there remains something exotic about him, it’s that he continues to mystify Europe by staying in his home country. Not that it’s hard to see why.
Neymar earns approximately €1.1 million per month at Santos—wages that would be competitive at any club, in any league. His young son and family are in São Paulo (there is no replacement for home comforts) and the financial vitality at Santos means the club can afford to surround their best player with some of the top talent on the continent.
A month ago, they paid €6 million to land Argentina midfielder Walter Montillo from Cruzeiro, and in recent years they’ve also signed midfielder Arouca (who is also part of Wednesday’s Brazil squad) and striker Miralles while repatriating attacker André, who was initially sold to Dynamo Kiev for €8 million in 2010.
Neymar, for his part, has developed into a well-rounded forward. While foreign-based websites routinely post video clips of his twists and feints and tricks on the ball, those who watch him week in, week out know a prolific goalscorer whose playmaking ability, football sense and movement have him atop the class of players just below the stratosphere occupied by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Granted, Neymar has never really hit the heights for his country that he has for his club, but recent instalments of the Seleção—particularly those of former manager Mano Menezes—have hardly helped boost his international pedigree.
Brazil under Menezes often looked a confused concoction of positional specialists that struggled for any sense of cohesion, nevermind acceptable results. So if Neymar’s performances in the Canary shirt have been wildly inconsistent, they should be seen in that context.
Not that Santos will be bothered by Neymar’s exploits for his country. After all, it won’t be his international caps and goals they’ll be citing when, should he choose to someday make a move, they establish an asking-price around €60 million. He has already demonstrated his worth at the Vila Belmiro, and as a footballer in general. He has nothing to prove.