Brazil is the cradle for more expatriate talent than any other country in world football. Last year, 471 Brazilian players plied their trade in Europe’s leagues, overwhelmingly the most dominant expatriate nationality. The footballing classes that the nation produces, year after year, are staggering, both in volume and quality. Uncovered diamonds glide with quicksilver ease around the concrete courts in every city, a step-over here, a backheel there, each bead of sweat a concentrated globule of white-hot virtuosity. For a young player to excel in the land of joga bonito, to somehow command the limelight in the middle of the seething, writhing mass of talented others, they have to be something special. And every few years a special player comes along, who is better than the others, and whose future doesn’t lie making up the numbers in the Ukraine, or Portugal, but at the very zenith of the sport. His glittering destiny is laid out in front of this young man by everyone, and as images of Ballon D’Ors and Champions League trophies flash up in his eyes, the hype becomes nearly unbearable. The giants of Europe begin a desperate scrimmage, the rumour mills churn with a devastating thrum: who will have him? Finally, the moment arrives. There he is, holding up the shirt, as the flashbulbs flouresce. Now all that thrilling potential can be realised at the very highest level, and the boy-wonder can become the legend, just like we all knew he would.
Yes, we all knew, didn’t we? But though the collective assertion of millions of fans can make a player feel ten feet tall and bulletproof, it can crush him into dust just as easily. Hype is a double-edged sword, and dazzling onlookers in the Brazilian league is a very different thing from doing the same in Europe’s elite competitions. In 2005, when Robinho joined Real Madrid from Santos, that famous nursery of Brazilian football, he, like most of us, would have anticipated staying longer than just three years in Spain. The number 10 shirt, Figo’s old number, was given to him, at 21 years old. Robinho had been a flurry of stepovers at the time, a buoyant little master, dribbling like a maniac and finishing with precision. Coming from Santos, he had been dubbed “The New Pele”, in hindsight a terribly unhelpful moniker. It started out well enough in Madrid, an explosive first appearance off the bench prompted cries of “Buenísimo!” on the Marca front page; “Robinho left everyone open-mouthed in 24 minutes. A genius has just touched down in our league.” And although his time in Madrid was hardly a failure – he did, after all, score the third most goals and lay on the second most assists for the team during his three year spell – he never reached the soaring heights many had hoped he would. Via two lacklustre sojourns with Manchester City and AC Milan, Robinho is now, at 31, home again at Santos. He probably became the player he was always going to become; truthfully, it was the inflated expectations we had for the boy that was once booked for performing too many stepovers that sours our memories of Robinho.
There are plenty of good ways to separate yourself from the pack in Brazil, but one of the best is to break one of Pele’s long standing records. Alexandre Pato, at 17 years and 102 days, became the youngest ever player to score in a FIFA-organised event when he scored for Internacional in the Club World Cup in 2006. Beating Pele’s record by 137 days, Pato was suddenly thrust into the glare of the world, an impossibly young, audacious striker who could rainbow-flick the ball over a defender just as quickly as he could barrel straight through him. He was fast, strong, and had that anger on the ball, a venomous disdain for the goalkeeper that made finishing a merciless pleasure. AC Milan had seen all they needed to see, and even a restriction from playing in Italy for five months after his transfer didn’t dissuade the Italian giant. His first two and a half seasons in Italy were a dream: in his long-awaited debut, he lined up with Brazilian heroes Ronaldo and Kaka, and he scored a goal to crown a 5-2 victory. Silvio Berlusconi compared him to Marco van Basten, and manager Carlo Ancelotti confirmed he was to make him a key part of the all-Brazilian Flying V triumvirate in attack. The Duck was flying for two seasons, until his wings were clipped. In late 2009, Pato injured his hamstring, a muscle that would blight the remainder of his career in Italy. From then on, the treatment table was the bane of Pato’s existence, a constant unwanted companion, as hamstring and other thigh ailments cut him down. He still showed flashes of brilliance in the rare sorties of health, but his reputation was now one of damaged goods, more trouble that he was worth, a sad story of a player hamstrung in his early twenties. A huge deflating sigh whirled around the world as Pato made his way back to Brazil, to Corinthians, and then to Sao Paulo. He looks on now, still only 25, as Fred and Jo line up for the Brazil national team, strikers infinitely less talented than he, but infinitely more durable.
So, now, to the latest example. Neymar was more touted in Brazil then either Robinho or Pato, and was therefore more mistrusted by the European media. The footprints of starlets who had tripped and fallen before this latest Santos product were still visible in the dust, and so wariness was the attitude adopted. But the highlight reel that was being passed around the internet was truly astonishing, a blinding exhibition of pace and skill that left the mouth flapping. This skinny teenager, whose legs were as thin as the number 11 on his back, had an irresistible arrogance, and was truly unmatched in his ability to beat not just one man, but two, three or four men. At his worst, he was a showboater extrordinaire, worth the price of admission simply for the sight of him embarrassing some hapless schmuck silly enough to try and tackle him. At his best, he was a bona fide genius. This slalom of a goal was evidence of that. And yet, his critics called him more hubris and haircut than footballer. “He won’t be playing Sunday league-calibre defenders in Europe”, they said, “then we’ll see what he’s really made of”. The situation climaxed when Neymar announced in May 2013 that Barcelona would be his destination of choice, just before the 2013 Confederations Cup. Brazil won that tournament, on home soil, beating world champions Spain 3-0 in the final, a match in which Neymar scored a belter. So, again, we were here, waiting on tenterhooks to see how this one would pan out.
Surprisingly well, actually. Unlike many of his predecessors, Neymar has carved a perfect nook for himself in his new team’s attack, playing with a quiet effectiveness not usually associated with a transfer of his kind. He is this season’s third leading scorer with 17, nothing to be sniffed at when Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are ahead of him with 30 goals each. He has made the equal-fourth most key passes for his team this season, and has made the equal-fifth most assists. But, aside from the bare numbers, he has looked comfortable with his role, and Barca look comfortable with him in the team. The expectations have been such that they haven’t overburdened the young Brazilian, haven’t weighed him down and ensnared too tightly the freedom with which he plays. He was the peacock at Santos; he is no showboater in Spain, rather, he is refining himself into a pleasantly mature player who is becoming increasingly aware of when to take on four defenders and when not to. This year’s highlights package has suffered mildly for it, but the team, and his long-term prospects within it, will benefit. Yes, he isn’t setting the world alight by taking the very league by storm, but this, I would argue, is a good thing. He’s still only 23. Being agreeably inconspicuous is the preferred modus operandi right now.
It may be the result simply of going to a club where team ethic is everything and grandstanding isn’t tolerated. Neymar, though he would have been only a lad at the time, will have seen what happened to Ronaldinho at this famous club; here today, winning the Ballon D’or, gone tomorrow, playing in Mexico. It may also be a result of going to a team where he is so obviously not the best player in the squad, or at least not expected to be. In that part of Catalonia, only one man is king, Messi. It may have just been an outcome that would have eventuated in Madrid, or Manchester, or London, or Munich; perhaps Neymar is just a more steady-headed person than we might have thought. Regardless, it is a sight for sore eyes. Too many Brazilian starlets have risen to the top, only to tumble right back down to the bottom. Neymar hasn’t yet, and is showing little sign of doing so. Long may it continue.