Tuesday, March 20, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: March 21, 12:56 PM UK
Should he stay or should he go?
Two weeks ago, Lionel Messi raised the bar when he knocked in his five Champions League goals for Barcelona against Bayer Leverkusen. Later that night on the other side of the Atlantic, a young Brazilian strained to reach the same standard.
It was Santos against Internacional in the Copa Libertadores, an all-Brazilian battle of the last two teams to win the competition, South America's equivalent of Europe's Champions League. Santos had lost their opening game in the competition, going down 2-1 to The Strongest of Bolivia at the always inhospitable altitude of La Paz, so the pressure was on when they hosted Internacional: another defeat would jeopardise their chances of qualifying for the knockout stages.
As so often, a pressure situation brought the best out of the best player. Neymar was outstanding, scoring all three goals in Santos' 3-1 win. The first was a penalty, but the other two will live for much longer in the memory. Both times he picked up possession around the halfway line and charged his way through for a superb solo strike. They were goals that showcased his exceptional talent. Neymar's running with the ball at pace is sublime, his instinctive understanding of space is extraordinary. His ability to improvise at speed is uncanny, and he rounds it all off with magnificent finishing - a point emphasised by his second goal, scored with a gloriously subtle right-footed chip over the goalkeeper, and his similarly-executed third, dispatched with his left foot.
Just past his 20th birthday, Neymar has already racked up over a century of professional goals. He overshadows Ronaldinho as the biggest star in domestic Brazilian football, and carries the hopes of the nation as they build towards hosting the 2014 World Cup. In little more than two years' time, the pressure will be intense. Of all the traditional footballing powers, Brazil are the only ones not to have won the tournament on home soil. The ghosts of their failure to do so in 1950 will be all around, preying on the minds of the 2014 team. How best to prepare Neymar for the challenge to come then? Stay with Santos or move to Europe?
A few short years ago, there would be nothing to debate. Financial realities would already have forced Neymar across the Atlantic - Brazilian football would simply not have been able to keep him. Times have changed, though. While Europe is in crisis, Brazil's economy has been enjoying a consumer-led boom. For companies seeking to connect with those consumers, an involvement with football makes sense. Sponsors, then, can be brought on board to help with the wages - and big-name players can now command as much at home as by moving to Europe.
Money matters, but it is not everything. Professional development is important as well, and Brazil coach Mano Menezes tentatively stepped into a minefield last week when he suggested that Neymar's chances of shining at the 2014 World Cup would benefit from a couple of seasons' European experience beforehand.
It is tricky territory for Menezes, because Brazil has a proud footballing culture wounded over the last two decades by the constant loss of talent to the major European leagues. Complaints are common - overwhelmingly when results are disappointing - that the European-based players have become remote figures, distant from the home supporters and disconnected from their reality. The call always goes up for more home-based players to be included in the national team.
On occasions in the past, this defied all logic. Those home-based players were either simply not good enough for top European football, or they were just about to make the move. Now, with the changing economic climate, Brazil's strongest team can justifiably include a number of home-based favourites - most notably Neymar. After years of selling its stars, domestic Brazilian football is now in a much better position to sell its spectacle, with Neymar as the chief attraction. But Menezes - assuming he lasts that long - will stand or fall by whether or not his team emerges victorious in 2014. He has a vested interest in wanting his star player to develop as much as possible.
Brazil's coach, then, cloaked his doubts in cautious terms. In order to keep hold of Neymar, Santos have been forced to make sacrifices - shutting down their futsal and women's teams, for example - and Menezes expressed his concern that in return for sponsors' involvement Neymar will have to spend too much time on commercial activities.
But, as Menezes is well aware, there are also solid footballing reasons for being in favour of a move.
A prolonged stay in Brazilian football would expose Neymar to the risk of spending too long in a comfort zone. At home, the defensive lines usually play deep. There is space on the field, and, crucially, the criteria used by referees works in his favour. In contemporary Brazilian football, fouls are awarded for the slightest physical contact. He is not as bad as he was, but Neymar still has a tendency to go to ground very early, winning free-kicks he would probably not get in Europe. This is such an important issue because it changes the entire psychological nature of the one-against-one duel. Attacking players thrive on confidence - which is far higher if the striker can take on a defender armed with the belief that if he cannot win the duel he is likely to be given a foul. Remove that belief and confidence can crumble - which in part is the story of the problems of Robinho, another Santos prodigy, in adapting to the European game.
Menezes would like Neymar to deal with these issues on a weekly basis before the 2014 World Cup. Two years in Europe, goes the thinking, will acquaint him with the task of overcoming bigger, stronger defenders in reduced space without the protection from the referees that he currently enjoys.
The player himself is currently sticking to the line that he will stay with Santos until the World Cup. Perhaps he will, but there must be a chance he will move sooner. This year is the centenary of Santos - the club were founded the day the Titanic went down - and they would love to keep him for all the celebrations - which, if everything goes to plan, will include retaining the Libertadores title and then going to the Club World Cup, scene of last year's capitulation to Barcelona, and finding redemption.
Whether it is this year, next or 2014, there seems little doubt that Neymar will eventually make the move to Europe. The fascination of how he might cope is likely to come with an added challenge. Most Brazilians who have hit the big time in Europe have tended to move to a smaller club first, found their feet and then moved on to shine with a giant. In terms of prestige and price tag, though, Neymar has already put himself in a position where only the biggest clubs are viable buyers. The pressure will be full on for the star in what promises to be one of the most fascinating narratives in the next decade of world football.