As Brazil lifted the Confederations Cup back in June against a huge backdrop of scepticism in the run-up to the competition after a series of disappointing results, one player came out of the World Cup dress rehearsal with his head held higher than most: Neymar.
The 21-year-old had just completed his highly publicised transfer to Catalan giants Barcelona, and the pressure was on to see whether he could live up to the price tag and massive reputation he carried back home in Brazil.
Multi-million pound transfers of exotic Brazilian stars don't always work out—think Denilson to Real Betis in 1998—but the furore surrounding Neymar's exit from hometown club Santos piled extra pressure on a player former Santos and Brazil great Pele had claimed could be better than Lionel Messi.
Neymar's first half-season in Spain has been largely encouraging. In La Liga, he has six goals in 14 games, including the winner in a derby against Real Madrid.
And earlier this month, he scored his first hat trick in a Barcelona shirt during the 6-1 drubbing of Scottish club Glasgow Celtic. He was the first player to accomplish the feat in the Copa Libertadores and the UEFA Champions League after netting three against Internacional for Santos back in March 2012.
On the international stage, he has become the undisputed leader of a new-look Selecao side. Neymar has thrived, excelling under the burden of expectation hurled onto his slim shoulders, almost single-handedly giving the team a sense of identity that seemed to have been mislaid under predecessors Dunga and Mano Menezes.
The starlet scored four goals during the Confederations Cup, including the second against Spain in the final which effectively killed the game.
Having led the line at Santos and now having taken on the mantle for the national side, it would be encouraging to see him be handed more responsibility at Barcelona, a role he clearly relishes and which helps him thrive.
That responsibility will be tough to come by at an outfit as gargantuan as Barca. Boasting the likes of Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and, of course, Lionel Messi, Neymar remains one amongst many rather than the out-and-out star attraction.
The hamstring injury suffered by Messi midway through November handed the Brazilian a chance to shine outside the monstrous shadow of the four-time Ballon d'Or winner. He has snatched that opportunity with both hands.
What he must now do is carry that confidence and swagger into the second half of the season and the latter stages of the Champions League whilst playing alongside his Argentine teammate.
Brazilian sports writer Lucas Sposito exclusively told Bleacher Report: “Neymar still needs more confidence to come out of Messi's shadow and score more goals for Barcelona when the decisive La Liga and Champions League games come.”
But perhaps a more important requisite is a much touted one: Neymar's need to add some bulk and upper body strength to his slight frame. In Brazil and weighing in at around 60 kilograms, Neymar normally had a whistle-happy referee ready to blow for a free-kick when he took a tumble.
Watching him in Europe and national colours, he has admittedly vastly improved his ability or willingness to stay upright. But his success, especially over the past six months, may have transformed him into a marked man.
As always, Brazil are amongst the favourites for the World Cup, and Neymar's rapid ascension means he will be the country's “go-to” player next year.
The five-time World Cup winners open the tournament with group games against Croatia, Cameroon and Mexico, all considered weaker, on paper at least, than their hosts.
The hosts will be expected to top that group, but should realistically come up against European heavyweights Spain or Holland in the second round—the finalists from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Sposito continued: “For Brazil, as the main player of the host team, he [Neymar] must inspire his teammates so he can shine at the World Cup without being over burdened.”
What Neymar really needs to do is ensure that come World Cup kick-off, he hits the ground running. Should he succeed in leading his nation to a record sixth title, the sky will truly be the limit for a player looking increasingly ready to emerge from the Messi-Ronaldo shadow.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.
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