22 Striker Barcelona Brazil
2014 has been...
A period of reckoning. However we look at it, this has been quite a journey.
As the year began, the one word that seemed to encircle the Neymar phenomenon was controversy. The malleolar injury that blighted the first part of 2014, and ultimately tempered his first season with Barcelona, became little more than an inconsequence as January wore on.
Revelation after revelation emerged as the shambolic mess that was Neymar’s transfer to the Catalan club unraveled. The resignation of club President Sandro Rosell became an inevitability once details of what Barca claimed to have paid for world football’s hottest property, and what they actually had, reached the press. Money seemed to be spilling everywhere; to Neymar, to his father and to a host of conspicuous looking businesses. Questions arose as to whether the money was paid, who received it, where it was taxed, if it was taxed, and so on.
When media criticism of Rosell and Barca had ascended to break point intensity, Neymar was injured and, to a degree, was well out of the picture at just the right time. It wouldn’t be the only occasion injury would excuse him from the line of direct fire.
Scandal aside, Neymar’s form for Barca pretty much mirrored that of his teammates during 2013/14. Occasionally magnificent, but frequently lacking. Statistically he certainly made a good fist of his first season in Europe; fifteen goals and fifteen assists from 41 appearances a reasonable tally for a young debutant gradually getting to grips with a tough division.
He played his part for Barca and while Atlético were worthy champions, the Camp Nou outfit were never that far away from success themselves. The whole season could have been very different but draws against Levante, Elche and Getafe, and a home defeat to Valencia were a touch symptomatic of Barca’s season. However, all occurred when Neymar wasn’t in the starting eleven.
Nevertheless, 2014 was always going to be about what happened in the summer rather than events leading up to it. The contention surrounding his transfer will likely drag on and be regurgitated but the Brazilian star was unlikely to ever find himself as the chief protagonist of wrongdoing, especially at home. This year’s World Cup was all about where Brazil currently stands in world football and over the course of several weeks from June to July we certainly found out.
Despite misgivings and the potential for serious unrest, Brasil 2014 was a triumph for football and the tournament turned out to be one of the best in living memory. Emotions were expected to run high amongst the local population, but it was the players on June 12 that poured their hearts out for a watching nation. And that was just as the national anthems were being played.
Brazil were certainly not the Brazil of old, or perhaps the Brazil of ever, but in Neymar they had a true world-class performer. Concerns that the team would be found out against a savvy Croatia were dismissed, albeit with a guiding hand from the referee, as Neymar took control of match one. Two goals, including a high-pressure penalty kick, a good marker and two more would arrive against a limp Cameroon as the hosts conquered pre-tournament nerves to gain a touch of momentum.
That momentum would carry to the last sixteen as Brazil matched an excellent Chile before emerging victorious from a penalty shoot out. Having watched Willian and Hulk miss from the spot, Neymar again coped with what must have been phenomenal pressure to score his team’s crucial match turning goal. Despite injury concerns Neymar played his part in the victory over Colombia, but it was Juan Zúñiga’s 88th minute assault on the great Brazilian hope which offered one of the most significant moments of Brasil 2014.
Having left the pitch in clear agony, faint hope that Neymar would be fit to face Germany in the semi final was not widespread and when news arrived that he would spend a significant spell on the sidelines few were surprised. The air of malaise that swept over the host nation should have been countered by the fact that Brazil would be taking part in a World Cup semi final at the Maracana, but the acceptance that this side only has one true performer was not lost. This is a country that knows its football after all.
This is a cyclical game but the knife that Germany plunged through the heart of Brazilian football on Tuesday July 8 may never lose its significance. Regular watchers of Seleção Brasileira would have known that something would eventually rupture, but not to the extent that it did and certainly not in a game of this importance. A World Cup semi final in which the hosts, and the most decorated international side of all time, were made to look like a poor Sunday morning eleven is unprecedented in the sport. This was football’s ground zero.
From Neymar’s perspective the injury was a cruel blow, but surely no one can suggest he would have been able to make any impact on a ruthless Germany. In truth, his absence from the shambles that unfurled was a blessing. A very, very good career move.
When injury finally abated, Neymar returned to action for Barcelona at Villareal, before hitting Athletic Bilbao with a two goal salvo in the final twenty minutes of Barca’s 2-0 home win against the Basque club. Having just arrived as a sub, the goals felt significant. They were. A new Neymar had arrived.
The aftermath of THAT match and the subsequent mauling at the hands of the Dutch in front of their own brethren will, rightly, scar a nation for many years - hopefully to the point of actually doing something about it. The over-reliance on some special kid from the favela has been forced for a long time now, but maybe that tap has finally dried for Brazil. With a questionable youth system in place nationally, Neymar may be the only great for a number of years until the Brazilian FA and its illustrious clubs get their act together. Nevertheless, once you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s only one way to go.
Neymar’s absence from the semi final was, just as it was for Thiago Silva, a perfect piece of timing, even if it was unintentional and unwelcome at that point. The World Cup is gone but he can now focus on picking up the pieces for his national side and the fact that he has been made team captain is no surprise at all. It’s right, justified and entirely warranted.
Neymar has featured in every version of The 100 we’ve run so far. He is, after all, a superb player, but we were genuinely worried that this would be the year that he would break. The saga of his transfer and a number of niggly injuries at the start of this year indicated that there might be problems ahead. More significantly, we’d long been concerned about the amount of pressure heaped on such diminutive shoulders for what feels like decades. The World Cup was unquestionably going to be the point where it would all be too much.
Yes, Brazil were an accident waiting to happen and that accident did happen, but Neymar never gave anything less than his all in every game he played during World Cup 2014. He was a threat throughout. He was able to carry hope, expectation and a particularly dicky looking ankle and thrive. When he was required to be the man, facing up to two very high-pressure spot kicks, he never wavered. At a time when they really shouldn’t have, Neymar did enough to make the people of Brazil believe. If that belief was misplaced, it wasn’t on his head. He wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Neymar returned to action for his club at the end of August, but announced his recovery with two goals in mid September, a week after showing for the national side as they overcame Colombia and Ecuador. Goals have continued on a regular basis for club and country since and any prospect of Neymar gingerly finding his way back to form has been kicked squarely into touch. As Dunga’s captain he represents the new Brazil that must emerge and has began strongly. Argentina have been beaten and his single-handed demolition of Japan was worth noting regardless of the level it was played.
There really seems to be a steely-eyed determination here. Injuries have been overcome, strength has been gained and pressure wafted away - all at the very, very highest level. At 22, Neymar has pretty much seen it all now and there is no reason to fear anything that he will be confronted with again. That’s what makes the ensuing chapters extremely exciting.
At the root of everything here is a phenomenally talented individual that we now genuinely believe can outshine everyone. Ever. There are no bounds to what can be achieved even if the team built around him is not as strong as those that have gone before. In 2014, Neymar has unquestionably suffered, but he has morphed from corporate poster boy to a genuine man of the people and a leader of men.
Judging by the level of talent we see coming through in Brazil, it’s very unlikely that Neymar will be able to become a world champion, but that doesn’t matter, he can act as a beacon for generations to come. His legacy is that he will be respected and listened to. He will inspire.
Besides, it’s not like a supremely talented South American hasn’t overcome the odds and dragged his nation to greatness before, is it?
"This is no potential superstar anymore, this is the real deal, this IS a superstar NOW. Neymar has shown humility and dedication to meet expectations since arriving at Barcelona. The hype has been justified, and with every game we see him maturing. For one, he’s lightening the load on Lionel Messi’s back, and is coming to the fore as a lead act in the team. This, a team boasting such figures as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and that Messi fellow." - David Cartlidge
"Neymar has scored 10 goals in 10 league games so far this season for Barcelona." - OptaJoe
A Can hurt any team and frequently does, rarely fails to deliver. Has endured more at 22 than most players will in a lifetime. That he has emerged stronger and more determined deserves acclaim. Outstanding.
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