When Neymar finally arrived on European shores in May 2013 for an official fee of €57.1 million to much fanfare, it was fair to say many football fans on this side of the Atlantic were a little sceptical of the Brazilian wonderkid.
His record since making his debut as a 17 year old for Santos was impressive, with 136 goals in 225 appearances. He also had a collection of trophies and individual awards, including the 2011 FIFA Puskas Award, won with a fine solo goal against Flamengo.
The 21 year old came with a reputation as being a cocky showboater. Many questions were asked. How would he react to being a smaller fish in a bigger pond? Would there be an ego clash with FC Barcelona’s main man, Argentine maestro Lionel Messi? Would he be able to cope physically with European football despite his slight frame? Was he ultimately more style over substance?
To Neymar’s credit, there was no clash with Messi, and it was clear the Brazilian was happy in his role as supporting act. There were some great moments for Neymar in his first season, his first goal for the club winning the Spanish Super Cup for the Blaugrana against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. He also scored and assisted in his debut El Clasico as Barca beat Real 2-1. He also notched a hat-trick in the Champions League, claiming the match ball in a 6-1 victory against Celtic at the Camp Nou. It was a solid if unspectacular inaugural campaign, ending the season with 15 goals in 41 appearances.
Following the arrival of Luis Suarez from Liverpool following the 2014 World Cup, Neymar knew he would be under pressure to kick on once the Uruguayan striker returned from his suspension for biting an opponent in October. In reality, Neymar more than played his part in one of the deadliest attacking trios football has ever seen, scoring 39 goals in 51 appearances as he, Messi and Suarez contributed 122 goals as Luis Enrique’s side lifted the La Liga title, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League.
This season, Neymar has continued to improve, and has stepped up to the plate for his side in the absence of the injured Messi. He has taken over the role of chief playmaker in recent games, registering 5 goals and 5 assists in Barca’s last 4 games, including 4 goals in a comeback victory against Rayo Vallecano. This included two penalty kicks which he not only dispatched, but won himself, and he should have been awarded another after another wonderful driving run. He is currently on eight goals after nine appearances so far this season, and is on course to match, if not better, his numbers from the treble winning campaign.
It is not just the Brazilian’s statistics that have improved, but his all round game. He is physically stronger than when he arrived in Catalonia, and is now excellent in the air, scoring often with his head when coming in off his left wing position to attack the back post. He is less inclined to be self indulgent, and will give a colleague in a better position a tap in rather than go for goal himself. This selflessness is also evident in his tracking back, which cannot be neglected in a team of Barcelona’s stature. He is still an entertainer at heart, illustrated by his glorious back heel first touch to control a crossfield pass against Vallecano, but he is now aware there is a time and place to showcase his incredible skills.
Legendary Brazilian left back, Roberto Carlos, has said that his countryman will be the player to break Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s stranglehold on the Ballon d’Or, and with lack of form or injury affecting the likes of Arjen Robben and Gareth Bale, it is fair to say he is now the best of the rest in world football. With 46 goals for Brazil already he is on course to become his country’s greatest ever goalscorer, potentially eclipsing the revered Pele.
Still not 24 years old, Neymar has the ability to reach the pinnacle of the world game, amassing all sorts of accolades along the way.