No one knows who the second-best player in Brazil is. But there’s no doubting who’s first. You can’t avoid him, everyone loves him, and his name echoes around every corner bar: Neymar! Neymar! Neymar!
At just 19 years old, this Justin Bieber of the football world, with his trademark My Little Pony mane, has dragged his team Santos back into a new golden age.
Once called a ‘monster’ after a youthful fit of pique led to the sacking of his then coach, the boy has grown not only to lead Brazil’s attack, but also to lead Santos to its first Libertadores victory since the Pelé era.
Now he’s looking to repeat another of the feats of the greatest player of all time – for ‘O Peixe’ (‘The Fish’, as Santos are nicknamed) to be crowned the best club team in the world. The winners of the continent-wide championship traditionally take on Europe’s finest in a one-off face off. Pelé led the team to victory in in 1962 and 1963, when it was called the Intercontinental Cup.
In December, not only is it Neymar’s turn to take to the global stage, but he will also be up against the current best player on the planet. No one is in any doubt who that is, either. Another name on repeat: Messi! Messi! Messi!
It’s South America versus Europe. Santos versus Barcelona. Neymar versus Messi. Only a shock result by a minnow in one of the two semi-finals can rob us of this mouthwatering spectacle. The Argentinian magician Messi is the current two-time holder of world footballer of the year, and is hot favourite to make that a hattrick. Yet Neymar is also on the shortlist and, significantly, the only one who doesn’t ply his trade in Europe.
Last month Brazilian football witnessed a seismic shift – a real game-changer. Every budding star before him has left these shores in a flash for European riches and limelight. But the young Santos player shocked the Real Madrids and Barcelonas scrambling for his signature, becoming an instant hero by pledging to stay with his boyhood team.
Of course, thanks to gargantuan commercial deals, Neymar will be on the same wages as he would have been at the Spanish giants and is guaranteed a personal fortune as the face of Brazil’s national team leading up the World Cup here in 2014. But what a talent, and what a statement.
Can Santos do it? Well, it has happened before. Barcelona lost to Porto Alegre’s International in the final of 2006. But that was a rearguard action. Neymar’s team want to do it the flair way. And how poetic would that be?