For many people around the world, football is more than a sport; it’s a lifestyle, an identity, a religion. The majority of young men who are lucky enough to break onto the professional stage typically live out their careers under the blanket of normalcy, with the exception of a few random, brilliant moments. Then, there are the players who are instrumental in the success of their team. These men work doggedly to excel at their given role, and they often go onto live out healthy, successful careers, where they’re praised for their commitment and work ethic. Above all other players, there’s a unique group of players whose accomplishments, both personal and collective, leave such lasting impression on the sport that they go down in history as legends. These individuals are seen as God’s; captains who have boldly led their teams to the promise land, guardians who have protected their home with unwavering strength, creators that paint a picture of the universe with one swipe of their boot, and assassins that have fearlessly gone behind enemy lines, only to slice up their opponents with finesse and brutality.
Legendary players hail from all parts of the world, but some countries produce these players more often than others, and with specific cultural style. For example, Germany has been known to produce top players who employ a simplistic style of football, all the while dominating the field with their size, organization, and strength. Above all other places on Earth, there is one country in particular that produces players who dazzle the world with their innate skill and joyous dispositions.
Brazil is perhaps the most well known footballing nation in the history of the sport, producing players like Pele, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Romário, etc. These elite athletes have done a great deal for the sport. They’ve spread awareness, introduced new tricks and techniques, enraptured the hearts of the people by way of showmanship, and demanded attention simply by winning… a lot. The Brazilian national team is referred at home as the Pentacampeões because they’ve championed five world cups, more than any other nation to have ever competed. In each of those victories, the Brazilian national team fielded a roster full of incredible players, a few of whom were men of a mythical nature.
Typically, legends aren’t decided upon until the end of their careers, when their bodies begin to fail and their level of performance drops off. Today, the game has changed a fair amount. The speed of play is sevenfold of what is used to be, the skill sharper and demands higher. This increase in the average standard has made it hard for individuals to consistently stand out, and when one actually does, all eyes suddenly shift toward that person. In the contemporary game, two athletes have dominated all competitions for the past decade. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are perhaps the best football players of all time, and they’ve won nearly every trophy under the sun. Year after year, game after game, play after play, these two dazzle the world with their abilities, Ronaldo with his perfected technique and Messi with his otherworldly style.
In the shadow of Ronaldo and Messi stalks an ominous and hungry Jaguar of a man, hunting his prey slowly, his threat growing each passing day. As the gods battle it out, this Brazilian idle has been rising from Earth and scraping his way into the heavens, like many Brazilians have done before. This young man’s name is Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior and he is the Brazilian next legend.
The beginning of Neymar’s meteoric rise began with the brisk decline of his compatriot and predecessor, the wizard himself; Ronaldinho Gaúcho. Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, commonly known as Ronaldinho Gaúcho, was one of the most impactful figures to have ever graced the pitch. Many great players – both teammates and rivals alike – explain the long-haired man with one word: Magic. Ronaldinho was known to receive the ball, flick it over a few opponents with ease, and wildly run toward goal, where he would either pull off a no-look pass or floor the defender with a few stepovers before slotting the ball home. Unfortunately, Ronaldinho fizzled out during his last season with Barcelona in 2008 and left Catalonia for Milan. For all intensive purposes, the magical Brazilian had vacated the throne, and within a year of his vacancy, the future talisman of Brazil began his professional career.
Neymar Jr. was born in Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo, to parents mother Nadine da Silva and father Neymar Santos. Neymar Jr’s talents were noticed from a young age, and before long he moved with his family to Santos to join Santos FC, one of the top clubs in Brazil. He would eventually begin his professional career at there just like Pelé and Robinho before him.
If it wasn’t the flashy hairstyles, wrist bands, or nasal strips, it was Neymar’s style of play that football fans found alluring. He has the ability to run at two or three defenders at a time, and more times than not, he alludes their tackles, often leaving them on the ground, incapacitated. Every touch he takes is sublime and deceptive, and given his skinny frame, so too is his shooting ability. Neymar can hit a ball from anywhere on the field with both his dominant right foot and equally powerful left. Incredibly accurate passing is something that is on display every time he plays as well. The only part of his game that isn’t great is his defending, something completely normal for an attacking player.
Neymar featured in his first professional game in 2009, and by the time he was 21, he had accomplished every team and personal honor in the country of Brazil. One award that sticks out among the group is the entertaining Puskás Award, a trophy given to a single player in the entire world, including all leagues, divisions, and countries. There are many incredible goals that happen throughout a calendar year, but in 2011, Neymar scored an insane goal during league play. In one swift movement, he dribbled, sprinted, and passed his way into the opponent’s box, where he tricked two defenders, slicing them in two, and slotted home goal from a difficult angle. It was a play that embodied every skill in his locker.
Intuitively, numerous clubs from Europe approached Santos with inquiries and offers. By 2013, Neymar had undeniably conquered South America on the club level, and it was certain that he would take his game to the next echelon on the most competitive continent in the world. But one question remained for fans and talking heads: where would he go? Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Barcelona quickly came forward as Neymar’s top three suitors. Being a top club in the English Premier League, Chelsea was at a disadvantage seeing as no prior Brazilian legends had ever played in the UK, so from the beginning, it was probable that England would have to continue their wait for such talent.
Real Madrid and Barcelona have shared many a legend from Neymar’s home country. Ricardo Kaká, Roberto Carlos, Robinho, Ronaldo (the old one) all had fantastic careers at the Bernabéu. Similarly, Barcelona has fielded the likes of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo (yes, the old one again), Rivaldo, and Romario. As a young Brazilian, or any talented prospect for that matter, both clubs would seem like a viable option. The choice boiled down to how much each club was willing to offer and what type of system Neymar would enjoy playing in the most. At the time, both clubs were at the height of their powers, and their styles couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Real Madrid employed a steel-clad defense and relied on their speed up top on counter attacks. Barcelona errs on the side of possession, they always have and they always will the most talented side to do so.
In the end, Neymar chose to go to Barcelona on a €57.1 million five-year contract, promising his talents and efforts until 2018. The Catalan club welcomed the young Brazilian after a few years of underperformance, which for Barcelona was abnormal under the supervision of Pep Guardiola. The 2013-2014 season for Barcelona was yet another average season, proving to be somewhat of a case study for identifying who needed to go and what talent needed to be brought in. For Neymar, his first year in Europe proved to be an all-around fruitful experience. He scored 14 goals in 41 appearances and helped the team to secure the Supercopa de España with an away goal against Atlético Madrid.
The following year ended up being one of the most dominating seasons in Barcelona history, and perhaps Neymar’s most impactful season for the club. Knowing that the team needed to make a few changes, the new coach of the Catalan club, Luis Enrique, decided to clean house and let go of 15 players, including the likes of Alexis Sánchez to Arsenal and Cesc Fàbregas to Chelsea. A total of 9 players were brought in to bolster the team. Among the new signings was Luis Suárez. Alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr, the trio would go onto become one of the most feared front three in the history of football.
In the 2014-2015 season, Barcelona won the domestic treble – La Liga, Copa del Rey, and the Champions League – making them the first team to have accomplished the feat twice. Neymar was integral in the success of Barcelona during this bright time in the clubs history, and he went on to score 39 goals in 51 appearances, finding success in all competitions across the board. At the end of the Champions League season, Neymar tied with his teammate Lionel Messi and the Portuguese legend Cristiano Ronaldo for most goals scored. This statistic alone was evidence for how far Neymar had come having only spent two years in Europe. It was clear the kid was going to make a huge impact on the game at such a young age.
The following two season during Neymar’s time at Barcelona was somewhat successful but in a decreasing manner. Neymar’s goal-scoring slightly declined over that time, and so too did a number of championships won by the club. The problem wasn’t because of the young Brazilian, it was an issue with the team at large. They had found plenty of success in the past, but their opponents in the 2016-2017 season simply outplayed them in all competitions. Although still dominant, the rain of Barcelona appeared to be coming to a state of stagnation.
For any Brazilian, the height of football is experienced on the international stage, namely the World Cup. Not only is the large South American country the most decorated national team in the history of the world, they also exhibit one of the most vibrant, fun-loving cultures. As a player, there is a lot of pressure to perform with flair and enjoyment, something that comes rather naturally to Brazilians. When Neymar debuted for the first team at the age of 18, it was clear that he would become the poster boy for Brazilian soccer.
Neymar’s induction into the Brazilian national team in 2010 came during a dry spell for the footballing country. Not only are they one of most successful teams in World Cup history, they’ve also enjoyed the pleasures of regularly winning other national competitions, such as the Confederations Cup, but not since the early 2000s. Neymar’s impact was immediately felt on the national stage when he scored against the United States on his debut. Since then, Neymar has gone on to win the South American Youth Championship (2011), the Confederations Cup (2013), and the gold medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
In 2014, the World Cup took place in the footballing country of Brazil, and Neymar was the most feared member of the squad having joined Barcelona one year earlier. The tournament had its ups and downs, but the Canarinhos managed to make their way out of the group stages and into the quarterfinals. Up to that point, Neymar had become somewhat of a savior for his team, scoring goals and providing assists during the most daunting of situations, and the country was sure that he had the presence to lead them to the final and eventually a sixth World Cup title. During the quarter-final match against Colombia, Neymar was maliciously kneed in the back by Juan Camilo Zuñiga, fracturing one of his lower vertebrae. Being known for his annoying theatrics, many of those watching claimed that the young Brazilian was acting, but after medical reports had become public, Neymar was absolved and all of Brazil wept for their fallen hero. Brazil would go onto lose in the semifinals 7-1 against Germany, the country who went on to win it all, inching themselves one step closer to Brazil’s record holding five world cup wins.
Having won a large international tournament (the 2016 summer Olympics), Neymar represents a shred of hope for the future of the Brazilian soccer. His impact on any game is undeniable, and as he ages, he seems to be taking on a role of leadership within the teams for which he plays. Although pure speculation, I believe that the future of Brazilian football is bright. Many young and mature players will be impactful in the team’s success next year in the 2018 World Cup.
In August of this year (2017), after weeks of intense rumor-mongering, the impossible happened; Neymar activated his buyout clause for €222 million and transferred to Paris Saint-Germain, the most dominant team in France’s Ligue 1. It came as a shock to the world, especially to the Catalans. Neymar posted a heartfelt farewell video to social media thanking his teammates and fans for their support during his time at Barca. In response, Barcelona fans claimed that Neymar was a greedy person and deserted his team for money, sacrificing his integrity for glory. In the end, the words of dissent leaking from Catalan mouths fell by the wayside as they should’ve. Neymar has big dreams, and the reality of the situation was that he had accomplished all there was to accomplish at Barcelona. He needed a new challenge to elevate his legacy. He wanted to be different.
PSG have been beating at the door of the Champions League for years now, getting past the group stages with ease just to lose in the quarters or semis. Despite their best attempts, they seemed to be missing something season after season. With the purchase of Neymar, they got exactly what they were asking for. Since the transfer, Neymar has played in three games for the Parisians, and during those three games he’s scored 3 goals and assisted three goals. The stats speak for themselves, really.
In my humble opinion, Neymar is only a few steps away from becoming the legend that he was always meant to be. He’s accomplished more than any 25-year-old footballer has ever accomplished, on both a personal and team level. In my mind, there are only two awards that remain for the young man to earn: the World Cup title and the Ballon d’Or.
With Messi and Ronaldo still active, his competition for the Ballon d’Or is high. However, they’re aging. Soon, Ronaldo and Messi’s level of play will drop off and a gaping hole will be left in their wake. At the moment, Neymar is arguably the only player who can fill that role. If he can maintain a trend of upward movement, the award will be his.
Now that Neymar’s at PSG, he has the opportunity to do a few things. He can win the Champions League with the Parisians for the first time and tack on a few league honors to go along with it. Either he or Cavani will be the high scorers of Ligue 1, so he may even add a Ligue 1 golden boot to the long list of his personal achievements.
Neymar Jr is about (hopefully) a third of the way through his career with a ton of time left to accomplish whatever it is he wants. Seeing the bold decisions that he’s made has been a pleasure, and it convinces me that he knows what he’s doing. While money is always motivation, I am confident that Neymar is planning to make history during his time in football. Many would say that it is too early to speak on the young man’s legacy, and I say it’s unfair to not recognize greatness. Neymar has demanded respect from the world with his actions and stellar résumé. He is the Brazilian Jaguar with his speed and skill, and he will go down in history as one of the best to have ever played the beautiful game.