Neymar’s public growth into one of the world’s best

Brazil and Barcelona striker Neymar. Picture: Getty
Brazil and Barcelona striker Neymar. Picture: Getty
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FOR those who have not already watched Neymar’s dive in the match against Uruguay last week, the challenge is to do so with a straight face.

When the young Brazilian leaps away from Walter Gargano’s trailing arm, it is as though the blast from a nearby landmine has lifted him clean off his feet. A mock-up video in which his theatrical spin appears to have been triggered by a Street Fighter-style upper cut has since gone viral on the internet.

Like many precocious footballers thrust into the spotlight, Neymar has some growing up to do, especially when it comes to the art of simulation, but there is no doubt as to the authenticity of his talent. The 21-year-old striker’s contribution to the Confederations Cup, which will conclude with tonight’s mouthwatering final between Brazil and Spain, has proved that he is the real deal.

Before the competition, there was a suggestion that Neymar had yet to produce in the big games, a theory even that, despite his £48 million move to Barcelona this summer, he was still a little “over-rated”, but he has answered a few questions these last couple of weeks. He and Andres Iniesta, who will be on opposing sides in this evening’s showdown at the Maracana, have been the stars of a tournament that appears to be coming of age.

After humble beginnings in Saudi Arabia, when it was called the Intercontinental Championship, the Confederations Cup has emerged from a difficult period – when it was trivialised by a biennial slot on the calendar – to acquire an identity, a four-year cycle and, with relatively little at stake, a reputation for positive, refreshing football. On which other stage would Italy beat Japan by the odd goal in seven?

The competition, which brings together the champions of FIFA’s six confederations, is held by the hosts of the following year’s World Cup finals. It is also considered to be a dress-rehearsal for the main event, which suggests that Brazil 2014 will be an exhilarating mixture of controversy, passion and genius.

Off the pitch, the 2013 Confederations Cup will be remembered for nationwide protests against the Brazilian government. On it, the biggest story so far has been Neymar’s response to the global spotlight.

Although he was relatively quiet in his country’s semi-final against Uruguay, he captured the imagination with goals against Japan, Mexico and Italy, every one a thing of beauty. Add to that the cheeky kiss he blew to Alvaro Gonzalez, as well as the blatant play acting, and it all adds up to an exciting, confident player with a bit of attitude who, according to Sportspro magazine, also happens to be the world’s most marketable athlete.

Predictably, he is already being compared with the very best. Just as Diego Maradona announced his international arrival by scoring at Hampden Park in 1979, so are Neymar’s two goals against Scotland in 2011 – when he (wrongly) accused the Tartan Army of racist abuse – threatening to be the earliest signs of an all-time great.

He has also been subjected to the dreaded Pele parallel. While Neymar is sensible enough to play that down, he was given the iconic No.10 shirt this summer and all of his achievements so far have been with Santos, to whom his legendary predecessor devoted almost an entire career. Neymar was a key figure in the club’s continental double of 2011. It was the first time in nearly half a century that they had won the league and the Copa Libertadores in the same season.

Meanwhile, his move to Barcelona has prompted suggestions that he is shaping up, even at this early stage, to oust Lionel Messi from a team that, just a year ago, was being touted as one of the best in history. The theory, propounded by Johan Cruyff, is that the Catalan club ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Their styles are certainly similar. Both are fast and skilful with the ball at their feet. Both are wide men who like to drift inside, winning free kicks that they take themselves. They are also slightly-built, so much so that their clubs have advised them to put on weight. While Messi, the Argentine international, said the other day that he welcomed Barcelona’s marquee signing, their shared traits may be less telling than their differences.

Not only are they from rival countries, they have rival sponsors. Messi is with adidas, Neymar (as, perhaps more significantly, are Barcelona) is with Nike.

Last year, long before Neymar and Messi had become team-mates, Pele dared to suggest that the younger player would come out on top. “Now,everyone is talking about Messi. He is a star. But [to be the best ever], he must first become better than Neymar. At the moment, Messi is just more experienced.”

This is a remarkable new dynamic for the “world’s best player” debate, especially given that Neymar has yet to prove himself in Europe. The same was said about Pele, of course but times have changed, and the consensus now is that the Champions League is a better measure of greatness than any form of international football.

Barcelona have faded recently, not because Messi isn’t good enough, but because there are not more like him. Gone are the days when Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry would weigh in with a sackload of goals at the Nou Camp. The closing stages of last season’s Champions League, when Barcelona had to do without Messi, showed just how dependent on him they had become, going forward at least.

They need more than the abundance of midfield technicians who will swamp this evening’s final.

Barcelona could have up to nine players on show at the Maracana, one of several sub-plots that will add to the occasion. The Confederations Cup, which Brazil are seeking to win for a third consecutive time, is the only major trophy still to have eluded Spain. If they can rectify that, it will also extend their era of domination at a time when tiki-taka, at club level anyway, is said to have had its day.

If nothing else, it will be an appetiser for next summer, when Brazil will be trying to win the World Cup for a sixth time. While success for the host nation would not appease the protestors who are angry about the amount of public money spent on securing next year’s finals, it would be a shot in the arm for Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was also the manager in 2002, when his country last won the World Cup.

It has been a long, hard struggle, trying to restore the national team to its former glory. In 2010, Dunga resisted the temptation to include a teenage Neymar in his squad, despite calls from Pele, Romario and 14,000 supporters who signed a petition. One thing’s for sure. Scolari will not make the same mistake.