Neymar, Barcelona & A Journey from Brazilian Wunderkind to World Cup Ambassador
The victory for Brazil in the Confederations Cup, dominating Spain 3-0 in the tournament finale, felt like a throwback to a previous generation in the footballing nation's illustrious history.
Not only did Brazil win a (relatively) major trophy, but the Samba Kings did it with panache, decimating a stalwart Spanish side and sending a message to the rest of the world that Brazil plans to do more than just host the 2014 World Cup.
It intends to win it. And that's where Neymar comes in.
The Brazilian Rebirth
It's hard to believe that Neymar is still just 21 years old. He burst onto the world football scene in a 2010 friendly with the United States, just days after a disappointing World Cup for Brazil, signifying somewhat of a rebirth for Brazilian football following their quarterfinal loss in South Africa.
A poor showing could be quickly forgotten, as Brazil's future again looked bright thanks to an 18-year-old maestro.
Truth be told, it's been more than a decade since Brazil has been a truly dominant force in world football. While Brazil won the 1994 World Cup in the United States, finished second to France in the 1998 Paris final and won the 2002 World Cup hosted by South Korea and Japan, it hasn't gotten out of the quarterfinals since, losing to both the 2006 and 2010 World Cup runner-up in the early knockout stages.
For a country with such great history, including seven finals and five titles since 1950, the last 10 years must feel like an eternity.
Sure, there was the 2009 Confederations Cup title in South Africa, but that proved a harbinger of little to come the following year. Clearly, Brazil is hoping this Confederations Cup crown means a lot more in a year's time.
Again, that's where Neymar comes in.
Staying in Brazil
For more than two years, Neymar was doing the right thing by staying home, making it clear—almost defiantly so—that he was going to remain in Brazil to play professionally until after the World Cup.
It made sense, really. Playing in a league with less depth of talent than most of the top European leagues, Neymar could remain protected while his game developed. Everyone in the world knew who Neymar was, and his early accomplishments and unrivaled skill in his domestic league quickly elevated him to world-class elite status. Still, the spotlight in Brazil never shone as bright as it did on his European club-playing counterparts.
As Neymar's name echoed around the globe, the football world still belonged to Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and the best players in Europe.
As long as Neymar stayed on his side of the planet, he might never be more than a YouTube sensation—the And 1 mixtape of the football world.
For a while, that was OK, and his highlight-reel domination actually helped grow his brand to a level far beyond his young contemporaries. Yes, Neymar was more than just a highlight reel. He was becoming a complete player while staying in Brazil, learning the nuances of becoming more than just an elite scorer with a deft touch.
He was named South American Footballer of the Year the last two years, but competition for that award is limited to those playing professionally in South America. Messi is the real South American star. Neymar needs to prove himself on a bigger stage.
The World's Stage
It must be that need to prove himself with the best in the world—and the money, surely—that finally got Neymar to leave Brazil. He will officially join Barcelona this season after rebuffing advances from top European clubs for the last three seasons.
Somehow, it just feels like the right time for him, and the game.
Neymar thought he would stay in Brazil and rack up accolade after accolade while holding off offers from the top clubs in the world. He had said he planned to stay in Brazil, ostensibly becoming the country's official World Cup ambassador, and then he could use that global spotlight as a springboard out of South America to the European club of his choosing.
No matter what Brazil did in the 2014 World Cup, Neymar would surely be the breakout star of the event. The plan seemed prudent, if a bit safe.
Instead, Neymar has decided to leave Brazil this year. He chose to go to Barcelona, the one club on the planet that probably needs his services the least. Joining the world's best may seem safe, but for a player with so much to prove in Europe, going to a place like Barcelona is anything but safe.
Oh, and it still might end up being brilliant.
Barcelona is Messi's team, and as long as he's there, Neymar will likely never be more than the second option on a team with multiple world-class options. That doesn't mean it was the wrong move for Neymar. In fact, it may have been the best move possible.
Instead of staying in Brazil and playing the role of local host when the rest of the world descends upon the eastern shores of South America for the 2014 World Cup, Neymar will have a year to play on the most popular club in the world. The spotlight cannot possibly be any brighter than playing at Barcelona, alongside Messi, Xavi and Iniesta as part of an otherworldly attacking force.
Neymar will have the chance to see what the world's biggest stage is really like, not just in second-tier events like the FIFA Club World Cup, Copa America, Copa Libertadores and the Confederations Cup. Even the Olympics, in which Brazil fell to Mexico in the gold-medal match, pales in comparison to the spotlight of the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup.
Neymar is already a household name around the world, but now he will actually be seen every week in most of those homes. Everyone will be watching Neymar's every move—and not just the great moves on YouTube—which will serve to help not only the player but his country when the World Cup arrives in Brazil next year.
Stopping the Flopping
Neymar is a brilliant player—as his play in the Confederations Cup clearly illustrated—but he is not without his warts. He's a flopper and an embellisher. He has been maligned both in Brazil and around the world for his inability to stay on his feet.
Slight of build, Neymar plays the game a bit like a feather, floating in space around his opponents while seemingly able to get knocked down by so much as a stiff breeze.
At times his brilliance can be overshadowed by a perceived lack of class. That should change with Barcelona.
While playing in Europe—specifically Spain—may not help Neymar learn a more shall-we-say honest brand of sportsmanship, playing with Messi surely can. The diminutive striker has developed an uncanny ability to stay on his feet when even the slightest scoring chance presents itself.
Let's not deny the fact that Messi, like most players, has a tendency to try to draw contact and does spend more of the game on the ground than perhaps he should, but Messi's first option is never trying to draw a whistle, unless that whistle comes on a midfield restart after putting another ball in the back of the net.
Playing for History
So much of Neymar's maturation will be about how he plays alongside Messi, yet so much of what Neymar must become for Brazil next year has far less to do with today's best player in the world than the Brazilian greats who came before him.
Pele. Zico. Ronaldo. Ronaldinho. The list of Brazilian greats is long and illustrious, and Neymar is certainly already among them, but none since Zizinho, Ademir and Jair in 1950 have dealt with the pressures of hosting a World Cup they are also trying to win.
While other players on the team may be more accomplished—Dani Alves is one of the most decorated professional players alive, and Thiago Silva has won titles in two European leagues, for example—the face of Brazil's World Cup chances has been and will be Neymar.
The question now, in the year leading up to the World Cup, is not whether Neymar will be in top form as a player, but how the player will be able to handle being in such a bright spotlight.
With political and civil unrest in Brazil that overshadowed the Confederations Cup and threatens to remain a hot topic heading into next year's World Cup, will a young player like Neymar, as dynamic as he is on the field, be able to stand up amidst the weight of the world around him?
Can Neymar transform in one year from a supremely talented wunderkind to the face of the world's game and an ambassador for his country?
Is it fair to put that much pressure on a player so young?
Fair or not, the situation is what it is, and Neymar is who he is.
In a year's time, the focus of Brazil's hopes will certainly include other players, like Oscar and David Luiz and Paulinho and Hulk and Lucas Moura. Neymar will not be alone on the field when he faces the rest of the world in Brazil's World Cup, but coming out of the Confederations Cup, it is clear this incarnation of the Samba Kings is Neymar's team. The success will be shared by all. The failures, like with Messi in Argentina, will be his burden to bear.
If Neymar takes this year to advance his game and learns how to play on the world's biggest stage, the World Cup and all the adulation that comes with it can be his. Still, a lot can happen in a year, and while nothing can prepare him for the attention he will receive next year, playing alongside Messi at Barca is probably the best place to start.
How Neymar responds at Barcelona will show the world what to expect in Brazil next summer.
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