Time for Neymar to head to Europe

Posted by Tim Vickery

Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty ImagesA move to Europe is in Neymar's best interest

Neymar sent a penalty kick into orbit over New Jersey in Brazil's recent friendly against Colombia, but the goals keep flowing for the 20-year-old Santos star. Indeed, he is well-placed to retain his title as scorer of the FIFA goal of the year.

His strike against Internacional in the Copa Libertadores is every bit as dazzling as the one against Flamengo, which won him the prize some 12 months ago. Both these -- and many other moments -- illustrate the depth of his extraordinary ability. Like a young George Best, he glides over the grass, with the balance and two-footed talent to change direction and improvise at pace, rounding off his solo bursts with cool-headed finishing. There are surely plenty more such moments to come. The question is now that his fourth year as a professional is coming to a close, how long will it be until he is scoring them on the other side of the Atlantic.

Hint after hint comes out of Barcelona. Only a few days ago, Javier Faus, one of the directors of the Catalan giants, described the possible signing of Neymar as "the perfect marketing opportunity." Right back Dani Alves joined the chorus of Brazilian stars of the present and recent past who argue that the time has come for Neymar to take on the challenge of European club football.

But back in Brazil the message is different. Week after week, Neymar stresses he has the dream of starring in Europe, but that the moment is not yet ripe. In strictly professional terms, it is hard to understand the basis for such thinking.

The background here is that over the past 25 years almost every big-name Brazilian player has been lured across the Atlantic, which has come as a blow to national pride. After every disappointing performance from the national team, the call has usually come for more home-based players to be selected -- the very players who, six months later, are then also transferred to Europe.

So far, Neymar has bucked the trend. He has become a symbol of the new Brazil, the emerging power growing in confidence and economic strength. The country’s development is exemplified by the fact that there is enough money around for Neymar to receive a European-style salary.

But this comes at a price. Santos had to wind up their women's team and futsal side in order to keep him, and earning a top wage obliges Neymar to participate in endless advertising campaigns.

The fear is that there might be another price to pay for staying in Brazil – his own development. The standard line that is trotted out in Brazil is that it is in his interests to stay until 2014, when Brazil stages the next World Cup. The connection is never made explicit.

Four years ago, no one in Brazil was arguing Kaka should move to South Africa, 2010 World Cup hosts. There were no calls for Ronaldinho to move to Germany in the run-up to 2006 -- and not the slightest chance that anyone suggested that Rivaldo should head for South Korea in the build up to 2002.

As former great Ronaldo gently tried to argue recently, it is entirely possible that staying in Brazil could negatively impact on Neymar’s chances of taking the 2014 World Cup by storm. Staying put, Ronaldo said, could hold back his progress. It is a fundamental point. Because for all the magnificence of his talent, it is not clear the late 2012-model Neymar is any better than that of a year earlier.

In 2011, Neymar was the outstanding figure as Santos won South America’s Copa Libertadores, more important than winning the FIFA goal of the year award. This year, despite fantastic flashes such as the goal against Internacional, he was not able to maintain the same level of performance.

The danger signs lit up in the quarterfinal against Velez Sarsfield of Argentina. Against Gino Peruzzi, a promising right back but an outright rookie, Neymar made little impression. Velez, with Augusto Fernandez shuttling back on the right side of midfield, kept themselves sufficiently compact to squeeze Neymar's space.

Santos made it through on a penalty shootout, but it was a similar story -- with a different ending -- when they lost to fellow Brazilians Corinthians in the semifinal. In four matches against sides capable of a European-style marking system, Neymar was unable to tip the balance.

His form for the national team has followed the same pattern, from as far back as his failure in the 2009 Under-17 World Cup. He is a destroyer of the weak, but he can be made to look weak by the strong.

Domestic Brazilian football -- with its deep defensive lines leaving space on the field, and its whistle-happy referees blowing for the slightest contact -- is starting to look like a comfort zone for such a gifted player. And the first half of next year will be more like one giant holiday camp.

Santos have failed to qualify for the Copa Libertadores -- almost entirely because Neymar spent so much time with the national team -- which in itself raises doubts about the decision of Santos to retain him. Until Brazil puts its soccer calendar in line with the rest of the world, frankly it makes no sense to pay so much for an absent star.

This means that until the national championship gets underway at the end of May, Santos will only be disputing (along with the opening rounds of a national cup) the Sao Paulo State tournament -- once of great importance, these days considered little more than a sideshow. The 2013 version will be especially meaningless -- Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Palmeiras, the three local rivals of Santos, have all qualified for the Libertadores and will make the continental competition their overwhelming priority.

Had Santos managed to book a slot in the Libertadores then it might be possible to justify the option to stay in Brazil. As it is, the impression is left that Neymar is running away from the challenge. A year ago, when Santos were swatted aside with embarrassing ease by Barcelona in the World Club Cup, Neymar saw at first-hand that he has bigger mountains to climb. Neymar taking part in the 2013 Sao Paulo State Championship would be the biggest waste of talent since Decca said no to The Beatles.

Tim Vickery is an English football journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1994 and specializes in South American football.

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