Is there a greater responsibility in the game than a yellow shirt with a No 10 on the back? Enshrined in the ethereal brilliance of Pele, the balletic power of Zico, the mercurial wizardry of Ronaldinho, the No 10 of Brazil demands of the incumbent attributes that only a few possess. It is the most significant shirt in football because it represents the game’s highest values and, as often as not, has been worn by the defining player of the epoch.
This player brings not only technical gifts but mystery. He bewilders because he conceives the game in a different way to others. There is more to his contribution than keepie-uppies, though they are there, too, in glorious abundance. He shapes a game, controls the tempo, sets the standard, scores the goals, and the hardest part of all, he carries on his back the hopes and dreams of the most successful football nation on earth.
The last Brazilian of this stature was, in the opinion of this observer, Ronaldinho, who at his peak brought a new aesthetic to Barcelona after helping Brazil to their last World Cup triumph of 2002. Rivaldo and Ronaldo were the grandees of that Selecao, exceptional players both, but in him a special light shone.
One month ago Barcelona paid £48m, ninth in the all-time list of transfer sums, for the next great Brazilian, or so they hope. Neymar is 21-years-old, has never played football outside Brazil and is now a team-mate of Leo Messi. The routing to Europe is the principal ambition for young Brazilian footballers. This is where the money is, where the great clubs are established in powerful national leagues. Neymar has been touted as the next big thing since he was 14. He might have been a Real Madrid player in his youth had his club, Santos, not found the resources to keep him at home.
Word of his prowess spread via the web, where the avaricious appetites of young lads high on football fantasy are fed via the growth of social media and the posting of links to YouTube. Ask any teenage boy with a mastery of PlayStation who is “the man” and Neymar’s name is first on their lips. They know about Messi and Ronaldo, about Ibra and Robben. This kid was invisible to the mainstream audience in Europe but not to the cyberspace aficionados, who catalogue the goals as they fly in, helping to cultivate the idea that a new genius is among us.
It is amazing how powerful the message becomes, how much traction it acquires, so much so that in the minds of many Neymar’s genius is proven. For those less than familiar with football subcultures or the domestic scene in Brazil, performances for the national side have had to suffice. And in that environment Neymar has yet to convince. It might be that he is capable of walking in the lofty company of Messi and Andres Iniesta. But he might just as easily be the next Robinho, another who arrived in Europe from Brazil with a reputation that turned out to be at variance with output.
Robinho could do marvellous things with a football and, just like Neymar, was hailed by Pele as his rightful heir in a Santos shirt. Real Madrid were persuaded to lay out £20m to trigger his release and threw him the shirt of the outgoing Luis Figo. He did not come close to filling that, never mind the No 10 of Brazil. He was more decorative than substantial and was soon on his way to Manchester City, an early bauble of the Abu Dhabi regime.
Neymar’s challenge is even greater. He comes to a team built around a player in Pele’s class, Messi – and that is not a claim made lightly – another in Iniesta who is as accomplished as any has a right to be, and a system that frames individualism within a team ethic like few in the history of football. Everyone benefits if Neymar proves worthy of the accolades that accompanied his journey to Europe, but how much easier would his assimilation have been had the world-beater claims followed the proof rather than preceded it?
Brazil’s triumph at the Confederations Cup, and his role in it, cannot be seen as verification. After their World Cup triumph in 2002 Brazil won the Copa America in 2004 and the Confederations Cup in 2005 but that did not presage the retention of the pot that mattered most in 2006. To fulfil the claims made for him Neymar has to get as close to Messi at the Nou Camp as makes no difference and usher Iniesta into the background. Good luck with that, son.
This tweet “Neymar, poor man’s (Wilfried) Zaha” mobilised a virtual lynch mob. It was intended to counter the avalanche of Neymar eulogies rather than elevate Manchester United’s acquisition. On to my timeline they massed, the Neymaristas shouting the odds for their man. My interest is not vested. All I suggest is that we wait to see how he develops before we crown him king. Until Christmas at least.