The Evolution of Neymar: How Brazil's Superstar in the Making Rose to Prominence
He is a player who captures the imagination like few others in the history of football, and his name will be the focus of all press attention ahead of the World Cup next summer.
But, just how has Neymar arrived at the present point in his career?
Without leaving his homeland, or even playing in a World Cup, the incredibly gifted 21-year-old has become one of the most recognizable players in football. It is quite some achievement.
The next few years will decide just how Neymar will come to be remembered, but those who have watched him develop believe vehemently that he will rank among the very best in the game.
So, then, how did a young kid from a coastal town in São Paulo state come to reach the top of the footballing world?
1992-2003: Early Life
Neymar was born in Mogi das Cruzes in São Paulo state in February 1992, but would move to the coastal town of São Vicente later the same year. It was in that town that he would begin his footballing journey, playing street football in the local neighbourhood. (The Age)
Growing up, the spindly youngster would develop his game in a similar manner to many of the world's great attacking talents—playing the indoor game of futsal. It would only be later that he would move on to the 11-a-side game, with local club Portuguesa Santista.
Neymar would be spotted playing for the club by the scouts of Santos at the age of 11, with the town of São Vicente neighbouring the coastal city. However, they would come close to losing the youngster to São Paulo FC, who were also impressed with what they saw from the young forward.
The video shown to the right shows an 11-year-old Neymar helping his side to success over São Paulo in a local tournament—it was the game that attracted the Tricolor to his talents. Santos, though, would be the side to eventually secure his talents.
2004-2008: The Pre-Professional Years
Neymar joined Santos in 2004, splitting his time between training with the club's academy and the private school in which he and his sister had been granted scholarships. (soccertalk.us)
His talent had earned him a chance at better schooling and was now taking him quickly through the ranks of Santos' famous youth academy.
By the age of 15, he was already appearing in the 2008 Copa São Paulo—Brazil's premier youth football competition. An Under-18 competition, the young star was one of the youngest on show, but it was his appearance that was attracting nationwide press attention. (Portuguese)
It was at the tournament that he would first play alongside attacking midfielder Paulo Henrique—at least in the public eye. Ganso, as he would later be widely known, would later play a major role in Neymar's career.
Yet to sign a professional footballing contract, Neymar had already signed a contract relating to "transfer of image rights". He was already earning significant money and, significantly, already had a release clause of $25 million on his head over a year before his senior debut.
Brazilian superagent Wagner Ribeiro, too, was already negotiating on his behalf.
To say that Neymar's arrival was highly anticipated would be an understatement. Links had already been made with Real Madrid and Manchester United, while comparisons with the development of Robinho at the club were a common occurrence. (Globo Esporte, Portuguese)
Having been put on a special diet to increase his weight, Neymar eventually signed as a professional just three days after his 16th birthday on February 8, 2008. A €50 million release clause was now in place, and a contract signed until 2011. A new star was, by now, very much on the rise. (Globo Esporte, Portuguese)
2009-10: The Rise of Neymar
Having signed a professional contract the year before, Neymar continued to develop with the Santos Under-20 squad—playing the Copa São Paulo youth tournament once again in 2009.
On this occasion, it was Neymar who was central to his side, having played a mere bit-part the previous year. The 16-year-old would score three goals to back up his growing reputation.
Soon after, shortly after his 17th birthday would come a first-team debut, as Neymar was granted half-an-hour in a win over Oeste. A week later, he would score his first goal in victory over Mogi Mirim.
So swift was his impact on the team that, despite being called to the Brazil Under-17 squad for the South American championship in April 2009, the request was rejected by Santos.
He would end his first state championship campaign with three goals to his name in 12 fixtures, earning himself the prize of Best Young Player in the process.
It was at this early stage that Santos icon Pelé would, perhaps inadvisedly, add to the hype beginning to form around the player by declaring to Globo Esporte: "Neymar could be better than me."
The young star would continue to draw plaudits heading into the league season, reaching double figures for Brasileirão goals in his debut campaign—despite missing a few weeks mid-season to take part in the Under-17 World Cup.
Pressure was already beginning to grow on Brazil manager Dunga to integrate Neymar into the seleção ahead of the 2010 World Cup. That call, though, would never come.
Neymar, however, would continue to improve, and come the start of his second professional season, he was ready to make an even bigger impact.
With the arrival of Robinho on-loan, the "Meninos da Vila"—Robinho, Neymar, Ganso and André—ran riot. Santos would win both the Paulista state championship and the Copa do Brasil in the opening months of the season, with Neymar scoring 25 goals across the two competitions.
Neymar would be named Best Player of the State Championship for his efforts, finish as top-scorer of the Copa do Brasil and, in December, be named among the Brazilian championship Team of the Year.
A place at the World Cup may not have arrived for the Santos prodigy, but he would be compensated shortly after with a debut Brazil appearance against USA in August 2010.
Brazil would win 2-0 on the night, with both Neymar and Santos colleague Ganso excelling, as the former also bagged himself a first international goal. It was a dream start to what has already become an impressive Brazil career.
2011: The Libertadores dream
Neymar achieved much in 2011, including winning the South American Under-20 championship, playing in the Copa America and being named the Best Player of the Brazilian championship.
Nothing, though, would top his achievement in carrying his Santos side to the Copa Libertadores title—the club's first since the era of Pelé.
Neymar scored six goals en-route to continental success, including registering in the competition's final three rounds. Santos had reached the pinnacle of the South American game once more, and there was no doubt who had become their poster boy.
The year had started in fine style at the South American championships, where he scored on nine occasions to fire Brazil to the title and Under-20 World Cup later that summer.
A second state championship success would proceed the Libertadores triumph, and, for the second year in succesion, Neymar was named as the best player of the competition. He would, though, face criticism.
Following the Libertadores, Neymar would not attend the Under-20 World Cup. Instead, Brazil's brightest young talent was heading to Argentina for the Copa America.
It was not to be a success story for either Brazil, or their young star, though, as a second round exit to Paraguay awaited. The Santos forward would score twice in the tournament, but face criticism of some of his performances despite his tender years.
As ever, though, Neymar was ready to bounce back, and finished the league season in fine style—scoring 14 goals in 17 appearances. It was enough to see him named Player of the Year, and would also help him win the prestigious 2011 South American Player of the Year award. (Goal.com)
The year was not yet over, though, as Santos headed to Japan for the Club World Cup. However, while Neymar would be named the tournament's Bronze Ball award for a fine showing in victory of Kashiwa Reysol, Santos would find themselves outclassed by European champions Barcelona in the final. (Guardian)
It was to be a disappointing end to a fine season.
2012-Present: A Global Superstar Finding His Feet
The 2012 season got off to a bang for Neymar, as he flew to Europe to collect his FIFA Ferenc Puskas award for the best goal of the 2011 calendar year. The prize was in recognition of his stunning solo effort against Flamengo, shown below.
Once back in Brazil, though, matters settled back into a familiar routine as Neymar guided his Santos side to a third consecutive state title. On an individual level, there was a third consecutive Best Player award for Neymar to take home.
It was to be a year of goalscoring records for Neymar, with both club and country.
A return of 43 goals in 47 games for Santos represented the best haul of his short career to date, while a further nine goals were added in the colours of Brazil.
Despite finishing as the top-scorer in the Libertadores, though, Neymar was unable to match the feat of back-to-back titles that Pelé's side in the 1960s had managed. A semifinal defeat to Corinthians saw Santos come close, but not close enough, to retaining their title.
Another European summer brought another major tournament for the Brazilian idol, and this time it was the Olympic Games that was capturing the imagination.
Brazil has never won Gold in Olympic football, and appeared to have the best squad in the competition. Sadly, though, it would turn out to be a massive letdown for the Seleção, and for Neymar in particular.
The lively forward had looked sharp in the tournament's early stages, scoring three goals and creating several goals for teammates. Like his side, though, he failed to raise his game in the final—prompting criticism once more.
As stated, though, Neymar was about to go on his best run of goalscoring form in a Brazil shirt—albeit against the likes of China, Iraq and Japan.
The stunning run of form, for club and country, would see him finish 2012 in fine style and earn him the award of "hors concours" from Placar magazine, the first awarding of the title since it was esteemed upon Pelé in 1970. (Goal.com)
That title would be followed up by a nomination for the FIFPro Team of the Year and a second nomination for the Puskas award at FIFA's end of year gala. (ESPN) Once more, Neymar was named South American Player of the Year. (Sambafoot)
And so, to 2013 we arrive, with Neymar threatening to breakthrough onto the level of the world's top few players.
While performances in international games against European opposition may not place him on that level yet, it will surely not be long until he does reach the next stage of his development.
Neymar, just 21, is the standout player for five-time world champions Brazil, and has been for some time. It is he, and not the likes of Oscar and Lucas Moura, who will carry the burden of responsibility into next year's World Cup.
Where he will next choose to ply his trade and when has been the main topic of discussion for some time, but he remains at Santos for now. After a slow start to the new year, he has once more set about stamping his authority on the Brazilian domestic game.
Talents like Neymar do not emerge very often, and there are justifiable reasons that he has been compared with the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He may be far from their respective levels at present, but talent will never be an issue for the brightest of all the Meninos da Vila.
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