Neymar has scored more than 100 goals in his career, exceeding 40 in a season twice. He’s led his club, Santos, to the Brazilian championship and its first South American title since Pele did the same in 1963. He’s been on the cover of a video game. He’s sponsored by Nike. He’s the seventh-highest-paid player in the world. He has an appallingly “fashionable” haircut. And he’s only 21. By about every standard, he’s what you would call a “worldwide superstar.”
Except this one: We’re not sure if he’s that good. As in, no one has any idea. He might be the greatest soccer player in the world not named Messi, and he might just be another talented 21-year-old Brazilian, of which there are enough to populate a small European principality. No one knows, because a combination of caution and coincidence has kept Neymar from playing almost any meaningful games against top world-class competition.
Not knowing is weird, especially today when toddlers are presumably being recruited by USC and Real Madrid is actually signing 7-year-olds, and the longer Neymar stays in Brazil, the weirder it’ll get. Right now, he is Kyrie Irving if Kyrie Irving stayed in school — and that school was the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Brazilian soccer is in a strange place. The national team hasn’t won a World Cup since 2002, which, for any other country wouldn’t be long, but in Brazil it is, and they didn’t even advance past the quarterfinals in 2006 or 2010. Meanwhile, their club teams are the soccer-world equivalent of Division II, or Triple-A, though they have become slightly bigger players on a world scale of late, as Tottenham coach Andre Villas Boas bemoaned after Brazilian club Internacional declined his $19.5 million offer for striker Leandro Damiao during the January transfer window. The fact that Neymar is still playing in Brazil is considered by many to be a sign of national pride and health. (Although, the president of Brazil — as in, you know, THE PRESIDENT — supposedly had to help Santos attract new sponsors and cable partnerships to afford Neymar’s contract. So who knows how true this actually is.)
The league, at least, is doing well enough financially, and it’s fun to watch, and a lot of people care about it — but it’s in a bubble. The soccer played in Brazil is different from what’s played in Europe. There are positions that don’t exist anywhere outside of Brazil. (See: Chelsea’s David Luiz, who in Brazil played as a “quarto zagueiro,” a freelancing midfield-defense hybrid who sort of roams wherever he wants.) Defense is an afterthought. Time on the ball is plentiful. It is — and this description is totally overused, but there’s merit to it — soccer as a means of expression. The individual is the focus, rather than the team. Which is unique and interesting in the context of every other professional sport, but also just not the best way for 11 people to transport a ball into a goal.
Neymar is great at this type of game — maybe better than anyone in the world at it. Watch any clip of him on YouTube, which, for most of the world, is where he exists. He plays like he doesn’t have knees, or any bones in his legs, and his hips are vaguely hips. His lower body all just kind of moves, pulling and rolling the ball in one of 360 ways. There’s no discernible pattern to anything he does (sure, he likes to cut in from the left side of the field, but that’s too general a notion to be helpful to a defender, like saying that Derrick Rose likes to drive to the hoop), and the ball’s moving through your legs or over your shoulder or just back and forth in front of you and then he’s gone. He’s so fast, the ball looks like there’s backspin on it when he dribbles. He’ll take a big touch, and the ball should keep rolling away, but then he’ll be back on it within a step. It looks fake, almost — or just incorrect.
He’s maybe the most exciting player in the world to watch highlights of. But the question that still hasn’t been answered is this: Could he do this anywhere else?
The best soccer teams play in Europe. These clubs have the most money, so they have the best facilities, the best coaches, and the best players — and, by extension, the best Brazilian players. Training techniques are more advanced by nature, and tactics have become more complex. (At least, more consuming, in that every player always has something to do, with or without the ball.) So, shouldn’t Neymar — one of the highest-paid players on the planet, one of the faces of Nike, and a dude who the Guardian considers to be the 12th-best player in the world — be playing in Europe? Until he does, that Guardian ranking, and any other one, is just a straight-up guess.
Neymar’s conquered Brazil. He scored 42 goals in 60 games his second full season at Santos, and that was as an 18-year-old. It’s difficult to see how there’s any room for him to improve in South America. He seems restless: He’s been red-carded five times in his short career, most recently ejected for “fighting.” This was his response: “Football is getting really boring, for the players, supporters and television viewers.” And with Brazil automatically qualified for the World Cup as hosts in 2014 (they play friendlies in place of qualifying matches), there are really no worldwide-level competitive matches to be played until the Confederations Cup this summer and then the World Cup in 2014. Neymar’s most competitive matches to date: the 2011 Copa America, where his performance was no better than meh, and against Barcelona in the 2011 Club World Cup — the battle of Messi! and Neymar! — where he was similarly quiet.
As Jonathan Wilson, the Nate Silver of soccer tactics, soccer history, soccer everything, wrote last summer:
Usually when a young player declines to move to one of the major European leagues at the earliest opportunity, the neutral rejoices. Too many have been destroyed by making the move before they were mentally or emotionally—and in some cases physically—ready. Yet with Neymar, one rather wishes he would have a year in Europe before the World Cup, getting used to markers who get tight to him, to not being given a free-kick for every little nudge, to having defenders hunt him in packs. In short, getting used to proper defending.
Still, he’s only 21. (What were you doing at the age, again? I was retiring from competitive soccer.) He turned down the opportunity to join Real Madrid at 14. Santos has rebuffed transfer offers from countless European clubs. Not leaving home is fine and understandable in so many ways — he’s still barely an adult but has a child of his own, and his presence in Brazil is important to a lot of people — but from a strictly being-good-at-this-sport-he’s-paid-to-play standpoint, it’s increasingly less so. Wayne Rooney made his debut in the Premier League for Everton at 16. Jack Wilshere, who is younger than Neymar, has been a starter for Arsenal since he was 19. Two Brazilians, Lucas Moura and Oscar — the former six months younger, the latter five months older than Neymar — both signed huge deals for PSG and Chelsea, respectively, over the summer and now play important roles for their sides. Not many outside of Brazil had any idea who they were when Neymar first became well-known. Even Pele, who once famously and stupidly said Neymar was better than Messi, has begun to sour on his lack of effort. (The headline of the linked article is “Pele Says Neymar Cares More About Hairstyles Than Football.”)
Neymar may well be a good defender if he gets a coach who asks him to work on that side of the game. And after you watch him do things like this, it’s hard not to see how he’ll eventually get used to less time on the ball. But neither of those things will happen until he consistently trains and plays against better players every day — which, according to his father, won’t happen until after the World Cup, when his contract with Santos runs out.
This is the kind of thing that would make talk radio implode if an American athlete tried it; think pre-title LeBron ditching Cleveland to go score 50 a game in the Israeli Super League. And LeBron, of course, got a lot of grief for a lack of ambition even for going to the Heat. It’s worked out pretty well for him nonetheless. Meanwhile, Neymar is still 21. He may be frustrating to soccer fans, but it’s too early to say he’s done the sport a disservice by staying out of Europe. So for now, it’s a waiting game. And there’s always YouTube.