Neymar facing career crossroads in quest to be the best

A sports writer recently suggested that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s unfair hegemony in La Liga was setting themselves up for the same fate that befell Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. The idea was that clubs that continued to widen the gap between themselves and the opposition through artificial means, such as the two Spanish giants’ practice of negotiating their own TV rights rather than agreeing to a shared pool, were diluting the quality of the rest of the league to their own detriment. Competition breeds excellence, and the lack of it for Rangers and Celtic transformed two previously regular participants in the Champions League into no more than big fish in a tiny pond, unable to compete at the highest level for lack of practice with quality opponents.

While it may be too much of a stretch to argue that La Liga’s dwindling quality will have the same corrosive effect on Madrid and Barca, whose traditions at the top of the game are well-ingrained over decades (although both did suffer surprising losses in last season’s CL to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively), it did illustrate a valid point. Players and teams need to expose themselves to the most competitive leagues to grow and nurture their talent. Part of what makes the artificial gap PSG are about to open up on the rest of the French League so worrying is the potentially stunting effect that regularly turning out against diminished opposition will have on the development of young starlets like Thiago Silva and Javier Pastore. It is also something that might be beginning to bear down on Neymar, the most eagerly anticipated of the clutch of young players on the verge of making their breakthrough.

Neymar’s continuing determination to ply his trade in Brazil until after the 2014 World Cup has the ability to both slow his development at a critical stage and severely hamper Brazil’s chances of lifting the trophy on home soil. There were patches in the Olympic final against Mexico on Saturday when it appeared that the prodigy’s training in Brazil had not equipped him with the knowledge to deal with several defenders instantly closing space around him and suffocating his movement. In the last ten minutes, three runs he attempted at the massed Mexican ranks resulted in the ball cannoning back off them and behind him, as his tricks failed to bewitch defenders who had probably had the opportunity to watch him in carefully prepared training videos beforehand. It is this kind of elite, tactically informed opposition comprising the ranks of international and European football that Neymar is missing the chance to grow against in Brazil, and for which he only has a parsimonious international calendar left to prepare him for in the run-up to 2014.

However Neymar’s obligations in becoming the world’s best player go beyond simply honing his talent in the most competitive leagues in Europe, and thereby becoming a player who scores match-winning goals for both club and country in crucial competitions. Goals can be scored by any great player, and Cristiano Ronaldo is perched atop the best of the rest in this regard. Yet in four consistently wondrous years at Barcelona, Lionel Messi has set the bar higher than that. Beyond the staggering number of goals scored and assists made, what really thrills about Messi is observing how he speeds and flies past tactically educated European defences who have learnt his moves by rote in the most sophisticated pre-match instructions available and are still powerless to halt him. Knowing how effective European leagues are at turning games into tactical battles designed to negate a forward’s natural ability, and then seeing Messi take all of the twenty-two men on the field back to the playground with moves that should only exist on PlayStation and in a child’s imagination is perhaps the closest thing to surreal that sport has to offer.

There is perhaps some truth to be had in the argument that Messi’s genius is unlocked by Barcelona’s unique ability to retain possession in threatening areas and create space for him to launch his unique runs at defences. However, the fact remains that there is not a single footballer from South America playing in Europe today that has managed to retain, let alone polish, the fantastical magic of how they play the game in that continent to the extent that Messi has done. For Neymar, it is the challenge of representing and demonstrating the limitless magic of South America’s game at the highest level of competition to at least the same extent that Messi has done that now awaits him in his anointing as crown prince.

4 thoughts on “Neymar facing career crossroads in quest to be the best

  1. Nice article, you’ve covered a lot in this piece.

    Although it would be great to see Neymar join Europe’s elite, it won’t necessarily help his progress on the International stage. Messi has dominated at club level but still has a lot to prove for his country.

    • You’re right about Messi so far failing to live up to expectations on the international stage although, when you have Maradona as manager, getting to the quarter-finals of a World Cup should earn you a trophy in itself.

      I think that with intelligent management, Messi could be about to reverse his lukewarm trend on the international stage and that the difference between elite European competition and international football is not that great now. A lot of international teams also set themselves up against each other in the sort of tactical, anti tika-taka way that La Liga, Premier League and Serie A clubs have perfected. Neymar struggled against such an approach when playing Mexico in the Olympics final. Learning to find a way to express his skills against Stoke, or Real Sociedad, or even bigger clubs like Milan with expert defences would condition him for the challenges that lie in wait at the next World Cup and aren’t provided by Brazilian clubs (with all their emphasis on flair and attack).

  2. The idea of a talented player like Neymar moving on from the Brazilian League may certainly be appropriate at this stage of his career. Indeed he is only 20 years of age, but he has shown over the last few years that he could be competing with the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, and he simply needs a bigger and more competitive stage to fully achieve his potential.

    However, leaving Neymar aside, let’s not forget the many starlets who have moved on from their smaller initial clubs to move to bigger and more competitive sides. Initially for many of these players what seems like a dream come true may prove to be the exact opposite, something that can damage an individuals career. Of course some clubs focus on youth development as their main philosophies as a club, however at other bigger clubs such starlets may not actually get the opportunity to reach to potential they were once sought out for. We have already seen a player like Romelu Lukaku purchased for 18 mil at the age of 18 as something for the future, however a season has gone by and he has barely received any opportunities as Chelsea, and with constant changes in management, who knows if he still is a major part of Chelsea’s plans. Another individual that comes to mind is the recent transfer of Jack Rodwell from Everton to Man City. With the talent that a club that Manchester City already boast at defensive midfield with the likes of Nigel De Jong and Gareth Barry, it is hard to see Jack Rodwell getting many opportunities at a club like this. Although these starlets may appear to be making ambitious moves – certainly financially, perhaps in some cases the big move to a club like City or Real Madrid can wait.

    • I guess we can also add Nuri Sahin and Royston Drenthe to that list of starlets who were stymied as a result of their supposedly big breakthrough. As you rightly say, there are pitfalls to be navigated about which club they go for. Chelsea’s mandate to win as much as soon as possible makes it hard for an under-pressure manager to pick anything other than the perceived best team available to him. City have such a surplus of players that it’s not easy seeing how Mancini will be able to give Rodwell the playing time and nurturing he needs to fully prosper. Lukaku’s frequent comments about how unhappy he was in his first season at the club of his dreams, always spoken with the force of feeling of someone who has suffered badly, do not cast Chelsea in a good light (the latest of which were these:

      However, the chances of a player succeeding in the big stakes is still less about a lottery than it is about factors like good management and realistic expectations. If the player’s agent/family does everything in his power to win his young star a move to a club that is conducive to his development (wishful thinking that agents will put anyone other than themselves first, but we can dream) eg. Manchester United or Arsenal, then he has secured himself a very good chance of getting his talent realised. Sadly, money often ends up clouding a footballer’s judgement for what’s best for his career and that is another reason why a lot of the money clubs are such a bad influence in football.

      The second problem, as far as the South Americans are concerned, is that a lot of their starlets are accused of losing their ‘South American’ qualities once they play in Europe. Brazil have been accused with some justification of playing like a tactical, European team over the last five years rather than with the complete freedom of Samba football. So it’s a catch-22: you need your players to move to Europe to improve, but don’t want them to lose their innate South American flair when they return to play for their home countries.

      However, I think players are more adaptable than people give them credit for and if encouraged by their managers, there is no reason why Pato, Kaka, Neymar et all cannot subtly adjust their game according to the styles expected of their clubs and countries. It’s just that Brazil have had a series of seemingly uninspired coaches who have not tried to galvanise the talent in front of them with the right attitude to how the game should be played. Their play often seems inhibited by the weight of expectations on their shoulders, and neither Menezes nor Dunga have been able to liberate them from this stranglehold.

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