Neymar securing a place as a Ballon d'Or finalist is just the latest step in his ascension among the world's elite players, and more is on the way, writes Ben Lyttleton.
A rabona is a trick move when a player strikes the ball with his kicking foot going around the back of the standing leg, thus making the legs cross. Trying it and succeeding makes you a viral sensation; trying it and failing is humiliation. Trying it to control a 40-yard pass in a Champions League game, and then bursting into the area to set up a goal for a teammate: well, that’s Neymar.
The Barcelona forward on Monday joined Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Franck Ribery and Manuel Neuer as ‘the other guy’, the non-Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo candidate in FIFA’s Ballon D’Or top three. The award for the best player in the world will be announced in Zurich on January 11. For Neymar, reaching the podium is a sign of his improvement, and, more importantly, of things to come.
While Messi is favorite to win the award–and quite rightly, given the absurd levels of brilliance he reached at times last season–if voters were looking only at this season, there would only be one winner. Messi has been injured for the last eight weeks and has only scored four league goals. Ronaldo’s nine goals have come in only five games, and he does not seem like his old self under Rafa Benitez.
Then there is Neymar: 14 goals in 17 La Liga games, and performances that improve by the week. The moment of truth was Messi’s injury. While there was some concern in Barcelona that last season’s treble-winner would struggle without its talisman, no one told Neymar. He and Luis Suarez upped their levels, and in Messi’s absence, scored 22 consecutive league goals between them before Andres Iniesta scored Barcelona’s third in the 4-0 win over Real Madrid.
There are glimpses of Messi in Neymar’s play at the moment; just when you think you have seen something brilliant, he goes and tops it. He destroyed the Rayo Vallecano defense with a four-goal salvo last month, then against Villarreal this month he scored two more including one sensational volley that he created for himself. The movement, dynamism and goals among this front three is unlike anything we have seen before: better than the Gren/Nordahl/Liedholm of Milan, the Maradona/Giordano/Careca of Napoli and the Puskas/Di Stefano/Gento of Madrid.
When Messi first came onto the scene, he was helped by Ronaldinho, who at the time was the best player in the world.
“From the first moment I entered the changing room, Ronaldinho and the rest of the Brazilians–Deco, Sylvinho and Motta–welcomed me and made things easier for me,” Messi told the documentary "Quan el Barça va recuperar el somriure" (When Barça got its smile back). “But above all, him (Ronaldinho), because he was the star of the team. I learned a lot by his side.”
Neymar echoed those sentiments to a degree last season.
“I am learning every day from him. It is great what he is doing for football history,” Neymar said of Messi.
The Brazilian scored 39 goals in 51 games last season, not a bad total if you’re playing second fiddle to someone. What has changed this season, and particularly since Messi’s injury, is that the three forwards now seemingly have equal status. When one hasn't scored, the others try and set him up.
Against Roma, with both Messi and Suarez on a hat trick, they allowed Neymar to take a late penalty (he missed). On Saturday, Neymar was on a hat trick, but squared the ball for Messi to get on the scoresheet. It’s as though the trio has decided to make a point of Ronaldo’s obsessive individualism; he scored 61 goals in 54 games last season but won no trophies. Better, say the South American trio, to score fewer, have some fun, and win the treble.
If Messi wins the Ballon D’Or it will be title No. 5 for him. Ronaldo has won three. The big question is, will it be their last? With Neymar in this form, 2016 could be his year. There are opportunities for more trophies: Barcelona could become the first modern-day team to defend its Champions League crown; it could even win back-to-back trebles. Neymar could help Brazil get over the Mineirazo, the name given for the 7-1 World Cup semifinal defeat at home to Germany, in two big international tournaments: the Copa America Centenario in USA and the Olympic Games in Rio.
The latter tournament, in particular, will increase Neymar’s earning potential as brands flock to be associated with him. While Messi is seen as a squeaky-clean marketer’s dream, Neymar has a different quality.
"Neymar has charisma, and he keeps his authenticity,” explained Alex Bellos, author of "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life." "He plays in a totally Brazilian way, with lots of dribbles, tricks and feints, and so makes you feel like he is a proper national role model. In fact, the more money thrown at him, the more authentic he becomes. His taste is what all Brazilians would do if they had money."
Neymar’s 36 million Instagram followers and 20.4 million Twitter followers will agree to this authenticity, which sums up the Brazilians’ love of sharing.
“He is the happy-go-lucky, slightly mischievous, but family-loving Brazilian,” said Bellos. “He is not aloof or arrogant.”
And suggestions that he is not part of Barcelona’s future could be wide of the mark as well. "Neymar says No to Madrid" was the front page of Sport on Monday, amid suggestions that Florentino Perez would pay 190 million euros after selling Ronaldo next summer. “Instead the Brazilian expects to renew his contract with Barcelona until 2021,” it said.
There were reportedly initial talks with Manchester United last summer but it would be strange for the Brazilian, at this stage of his career, to join a club in transition–whatever the salary on offer–when the Messi-Suarez-Neymar partnership is in full flight.
Xavi has predicted that Neymar will one day replace Messi as the best player in the world. The date of that coronation is getting closer. Perhaps it will be in 2016.