He is an unlikely symbol of the new Brazil – a skinny, mohawked 19-year-old with a shy smile – but Neymar da Silva Santos Junior is just that. Already a superstar in his homeland, Neymar is riding the crest of a remarkable economic boom. He has a pay packet to rival the top players in Europe and this week can test himself against the best at the Fifa Club World Cup in Japan. The message from Brazil is clear: watch out Barcelona and watch out Lionel Messi.
"It is certain that Neymar will be the best in the world by 2014, without doubt," says his coach at Santos, Muricy Ramalho. "Now Messi is the best, Cristiano Ronaldo is second. Neymar is third best in the world, but by the World Cup here in Brazil, he will be first."
Pele goes even further. "I think Neymar is better than Messi, more complete," says the man who brought Santos global fame. The comparisons in Brazil are relentless. When Neymar scored four goals for Santos on the same day that Messi hit a hat-trick for Barça, shortly before both were included on the 23-man shortlist for the Ballon d'Or last month, the front page of sports daily Lance! screamed "Learn Messi!"
Neymar himself is humble, and a little weary, when asked about Messi when we meet at Santos's training centre in a room adorned with murals of the club's heroes (Pele, Zito, Robinho, Elano), shortly before the squad left for Japan.
"Look, I don't know," he says. "To get where Messi has got to, you have to work very hard, train all the time, be totally dedicated. Yes, I hope one day I can arrive where Messi is now. So I have dedicated myself to this, always training and working, to try to reach this. I hope I can play against Messi in Japan. I would be honoured. Today he is the best in the world."
Neymar turned down Chelsea and Real Madrid before signing a new contract with Santos last month that will net him about £550,000 a month. With a popularity that transcends club loyalties, based largely on the hope he can inspire Brazil's return to the jogo bonito after the unpopular Dunga years, keeping Neymar at home became a national issue.
The Santos president, Luis Alvaro Ribeiro, even called on the Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, to help. The Spanish bank Santander, a major player in Brazil, took out double-page newspaper adverts proclaiming itself proud to have contributed to keeping the player at home. It is one of seven companies tied into an imaginative contract with Neymar and Santos, the club realising it needed help topping up the £90,000-a-month salary it could pay.
"I have no regrets," Neymar says about turning down Chelsea and Real. "It is still a dream of mine to play in Europe, but I don't know when. If I leave I want the moment to be right. But I will stay with Santos until 2014, it is definite."
With the release clause in his contract having been increased to €70m (£59.2m), and the option of walking away on a free after the World Cup, this looks the likeliest scenario, although a huge offer from Europe in the meantime could still change the landscape.
Ramalho believes Neymar will stay until after the World Cup. "Every world champion has a different player, a special one. Brazil in 2014 will have Neymar who will make the difference. The people who advise him understand that after the World Cup, when he will be 22, he will be better prepared for Europe."
The wider significance of the deal is not lost on Ramalho, who is known as "Professor" by his players. "Santos showed the world and all the other teams in Brazil that it's possible to keep hold of your best players. This was very important for Brazilian football. It means we can become better, our championship can become stronger. Foreign clubs always come to take our best players but this time Santos showed it can be different."
While Europe has been tightening its belt, Brazil's economy grew by 7.5 per cent last year, a record since 1986, with only China and India ahead in GDP expansion. Forbes reported this month that 19 new millionaires have been created per day in Brazil since 2007. Government figures showed in October that, for the first time in 20 years, the number of foreigners coming to live in Brazil surpassed the number of Brazilians leaving to work abroad.
Does Neymar see himself as a symbol of Brazil's increasing global confidence? "I don't know about that, but I know Brazil is growing stronger and I stayed because it was the right thing for me at this time, for my happiness."
Despite the apparent economic sea-change, Neymar acknowledges it is still harder to get nominated for the Ballon d'Or – the title of best in the world – while playing outside the European leagues. He was the only such player on the 23-man list, although he did not survive last week's reduction to three, with Messi left as the favourite to become the first to win it in three successive years.
"It's a little more difficult to do this when playing far from Europe, but I believe South American football is growing stronger," says Neymar, who was also the only non-Europe-based player on the 55-man shortlist for the FIFPro world XI of the year. "Maybe not today, but maybe in one or two years this nomination will prove to be very important for South American football."
Neymar will go up against Messi for Fifa's best goal of the year, his remarkable slalom through the Flamengo defence competing with the Argentine's flick and volley against Arsenal and Wayne Rooney's overhead kick against Manchester City.
Neymar inspired Santos to triumph in this year's Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, driving them through the earlier rounds, scoring in June's final and being named player of the tournament. This earned Santos a ticket to the Club World Club, which started last week in Toyota City and ends in Yokohama on Sunday. Santos start their tournament in the semi-final against Japan's Kashiwa Reysol tomorrow while Barça will play Al-Sadd from Qatar on Thursday in their last-four match.
Beat Reysol and Santos will be up against the team many say are the best ever, and who confirmed their superiority over Real Madrid on Saturday night. Around the King Pele Training Centre, one word is repeated like a mantra when Santos staff are asked about Barça: "Possession."
"It seems impossible, the amount of time they keep possession for," Neymar says. "So it will be very difficult. I don't know how we'll do it, but Professor Muricy will take care of that. We just have to train hard."
Ramalho has a pedigree to worry Pep Guardiola. He won the Brazilian championship with Sao Paulo in 2006, 2007, 2008 and again in 2010 with Fluminense, then turned down the Brazil job before guiding Santos to the Libertadores. He will be strong favourite to lead Brazil into the World Cup should the under-pressure Mano Menezes fall.
"Possession..." muses Ramalho, when asked about Barcelona. "They do two important things. They know how to keep possession very well and they pressure you a lot when you have the ball. But when we have possession we have to go for Barcelona, we have to counter-attack and gamble."
Ramalho believes that when Neymar does move on, the Nou Camp would be the ideal destination: "Technically, Barcelona would be the best place for Neymar, their style is very similar to Brazilian football. Today, Real Madrid play very tactically, with lots of marking, this would be a little difficult for Neymar.
"Now, England would not be right for Neymar, it would be too difficult. The play is very hard, the marking very tight. But certainly he will become better prepared for this and there are many very good teams like Manchester United, although Arsenal are most similar to Brazilian teams."
The one-hour drive from the vast urban sprawl of Sao Paulo to Santos takes you down a mountainside road, offering breathtaking views of subtropical forest and the sea. But while the journey and arrival in the small port city may feel like a trip into a more innocent, parochial setting, Santos are no strangers to the big time. Back-to-back wins in the Intercontinental Cup, the precursor to the Club World Cup, made them famous in the Sixties, Pele fronting the team which beat Benfica in 1962 and Milan in 1963.
"Santos always has teams that attack, who are brave and play with charisma. It is the team that is in my heart," says Neymar. He is also in the club's heart. Staff speak glowingly about how polite and accommodating he is. Before there were stories of rows with rival players and referees. The previous Santos coach, Dorival Junior, lost his job after falling out with Neymar. Guardiola was reportedly put off a bid by such stories. But Santos are working hard to help him become calmer and more focused, with four full-time staff looking after him.
He has also become a father. His three-month old son, Davi Lucca, was another factor in his staying. "Definitely, I want to see my son grow up, I want to be near to him," Neymar says.
There will be further tests of his patience. Long-lens paparazzi shots of him cavorting on a yacht in Dalmatian-patterned swimming trunks with friends, including a female Brazilian reality TV "star", recently made the front pages. Do such intrusions annoy him? "No, I understand what is happening to me now, I'm becoming accustomed to it. I'm the kind of person who loves to stick with my friends, close to my family. It doesn't matter how famous I become, how rich I get, I will never change."
Neymar tale-of-the-tape Messi
19 Age 24
157 Club appearances 294
80 Club goals 207
15 International caps 67
8 International goals 19
Copa Libertadores Honours 3 CL,
(inc player of 5 La Ligas
tournament) 1 Spanish Cup
1 Brazilian Cup 1 Club World Cup
2 State championships 1 Olympic gold
2 Ballon d'Or
£59m Buyout clause £225m Statistics from Infostrada Sports
Now meet Ganso, the thinking fan's Neymar
While the main focus will be on how Neymar shapes up against Lionel Messi if Santos and Barcelona deliver the expected Club World Cup final on Sunday, some observers will be more keen to see how Brazil's other major young hope fares.
For many, Paulo Henrique Ganso (right) is a better player than Neymar, but one who has been touched by ill fortune. The 22-year-old is far less flashy than the 19-year-old he calls his "little brother". Ganso does not try many tricks and does not appear in the gossip pages. His game is more about intelligent use of space, perceptive passing, bringing others into play. A thinking fan's Neymar, it could be said.
His style is upright and elegant, and at his best he has been compared to a young Zinedine Zidane. But a knee injury last year sidelined him for six months and related thigh-muscle problems have blighted his return this year. He looked set for Europe, with the two Milan clubs leading the chase, while Chelsea and both Manchester sides have also been linked to him. But the fitness worries and a buy-out clause of €50m have stalled that dream.
Ganso will discuss his future after Japan, and while it had been thought his exit was inevitable, Neymar's pledge to stay until 2014 could encourage Ganso to follow suit. "After the Club World Cup we can think about the future," he said. "I still have the dream of playing in Europe. I do not have a strong preference for which league, but it must be a big club." First the focus is on setting up the dream tie with Barcelona. "This is a very good opportunity for us to show what we can do. We must concentrate on playing our usual game, joyful football, trying to score goals." Sam Green
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