Seven Minute Saviour
March 8th 2017 9:28pm – Barcelona are 5-3 down on aggregate to Paris St. Germain, 88 minutes on the clock and staring elimination from the Champions League in the face, los cules win a free kick, up-steps Neymar.
What happens next is quite possibly the most unbelievable Seven minutes in Champions League history, if not club football in general, committed now to folklore and retold by groups of friends thousands of time and viewed on YouTube thousands of times more than that.
That special night in the Catalan capital, with the eyes of the world watching, one man refused to quit, he picked up the squad by the scruff of the neck and dragged them kicking and cheering into the quarter finals at the behest of their Parisian counterparts.
So where did it all begin?
Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, February 1992. Neymar da Silva Santos Jr grew up like many in the country, playing street football. Morning, Noon and Night, in some cases to the detriment of his school work. Quite often he’d be out playing not long after he woke up and as a result was late for School on many occasions.
Neymar then progressed to playing in local Futsal tournaments, the combination of his street upbringing and the fast paced nature of Futsal developed the quick thinking, fleet footed player we see and love watching today. His ability on and off the ball is mesmerising, manipulating the play in ways rarely seen before.
It was at one of these Futsal Tournaments Neymar was spotted by FC Santos legend, Lima. Lima was so impressed he wanted to sign Neymar into the Santos Youth set-up there and then, but there was a problem.
At the time of his discovery Neymar was just 13 and there was no team in the Santos set-up that catered for boys that young. Lima went to the Director of Youth Football, another FC Santos legend Zito and proposed one be created, just for him.
Such was the strength of Lima and Zito faith in Neymar ability, a squad of u14’s was created and he would work his way up through the academy until his eventual first team debut aged 17.
It could have been completely different for Neymar though. Just a year after his induction into Santos Youth, Neymar was invited to train with Real Madrid. At a time when they had stars like Ronaldo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos and Beckham. After just 3 days, Real had seen enough and offered him a contract equal to that of Lionel Messi first deal at Barcelona. With a few days consideration, Neymar rejected the offer citing homesickness as the reason.
The rejection of one of the worlds biggest and (at the time) most successful clubs, generated huge interest in Neymar back home at Santos, very often the Youth Games he played in would have crowds of 1000’s show up and cheer him on.
Men, Women and Children alike all wanting pictures and autographs with the then 14 year old. Neymar’s admirers would have to wait until he was 17 before he made his debut for the Santos First Team, it would prove well worth the wait.
He scored 14 goals in all competitions in his debut season, one of which a winner in the Campeonato Paulista semi-final against Palmeiras a competition Santos would go on to lose to Corinthians.
Neymar second season with Santos proved to be more successful, highlights included scoring 5 goals in a single Brazilian Cup game, winning the Campeonato Paulista in which Neymar scored 14 goals in 19 Games. Neymar played a total of 60 games scoring an impressive 42 goals in 2010, aged just 18. He also finished 3rd in The South American Footballer of The Year Award behind D’Alessandro and Juan Veron. He subsequently earned the attention of teams across Europe, unbelievably West Ham were just days away from signing the now £198m man for a bargain £16m. The deal collapsed amid late interest from Chelsea and the persistence of Real Madrid, but it would all prove to come to nothing. Santos were unwilling to sell for anything less than £25m and the deal was further complicated by third party ownership.
Fast forward three years and at 21, Neymar has won everything he possibly can playing for Santos, including the Copa Libertadores (South American equivalent of The Champions League) for the first time since 1968. Making a total of 220 appearances and scoring 134 goals, individual honours included being crowned South America’s Best Player and a coveted Puskas Award for his jaw-dropping Goal vs Flemengo.
The Puskas award is reserved for the best goal scored in the calendar year, anywhere in the world, testament to that are the nominations of Matty Burrows in 2010 and Stephanie Roche in 2014, astounding then that Neymar has been nominated five times and finished on the podium three in a competition that considers any goal, scored anywhere on the planet.
Will He? Won’t He?
There remains however an individual award that has so far proved elusive to Neymar; The Ballon d’Or (a.k.a The Worlds Best Player Award). Twice he’s finished in 3rd place behind the dominant pair of Ronaldo and Messi, some say deservedly so and others are less enamoured with Neymar’s credentials as a true candidate for worlds best player.
Let’s look at the argument in favour first of all. There’s no denying that when on form, Neymar is up there with Messi and Ronaldo, able to change games with a single, or in the case of the aforementioned quarter final vs PSG, several moments of brilliance. He scores goals, he links play, he provides the killer pass for his team mates, in many ways he’s the perfect candidate. Not just a Champions League, La Liga and Copa Del Rey Winner in recent years, but also a central figure for the Brazilian National team and global icon, often adorning billboards the world over. He’s a highly skilled player, pace to burn and a dead eye for goal.
His transfer to Barcelona came as no surprise, as one of the worlds hottest prospects being snatched up by one of the worlds great teams. His transfer to PSG from Barcelona however sent shockwaves through the footballing world. The money involved is mind boggling, but the reasons behind the move cited by Neymar himself even more so. The move from Barcelona to the French Capital driven by a desire to win the Ballon d’Or, it makes sense in a way, how could you possibly be crowned best player in the world, if you’re not even the best player in your team.
Patience is a virtue and it would seem that for Neymar (Or perhaps the people around him) it was in short supply, he was not willing to play Prince to Messi any longer than he had to and he felt playing in shadows did not serve his best interest.
Which sets us up nicely for the arguments against, Neymar’s impatience may have just cost him the very thing he left Barcelona for. Not since 1991 has there been a Ballon d’Or Winner playing in Frances Premier Division. In fact Jean Pierre-Papin’s win is the only crowning of a player, playing in France, in the competitions history. The truth is, being the best player, at the best club in an average league casts doubt on his credence as the worlds best player.
He was heir to Messi’s throne, part of the most heralded front three in European Football, an attacking unit that were capable of scoring over 100 goals in 2016/17, a trifecta that could pick apart teams at will. The controversial switch to Paris for a world record £198m also plays into an existing narrative that he in fact believes his own hype. I mean who wouldn’t after a youth team was set up just for you, offered a contract within days of training with one of the worlds biggest teams and know that your current employer was willing to pay any price to secure your services.
Believing your own hype though can be seen as arrogant and unbecoming of the role model figures FIFA wish to promote. Ronaldo has his critics, but he and Messi are everything an organisation awash with corruption could hope for as it’s representatives. Perhaps then that stands as the most compelling reason why Neymar won’t win the Ballon d’Or, contest it? for sure, but unless the current narrative is dispelled, who can really be 100% certain he’ll ever win it.
What do you think? does he need to move back to a “Top League” to be considered again. What do you make of reports that Real Madrid have made him their number one Summer target? more so what do make of PSG £400m valuation of a man they purchased just 9 months ago, citing loss of commercial revenue.
Join me next week as I continue profiling the ten players I believe will contest the Ballon d’Or post Ronaldo and Messi. Next up I’ll be taking an in-depth look at the first Englishman since 2001 to be in-line for the biggest individual honour in world football, Harry Kane.