Brazil's Neymar set to become latest attraction in Europe
Everywhere you look and everywhere you go, there appears to be some sort of reference about Neymar.
It might be in one of the dozens of television commercials or on billboards by sponsors that make him by far the best paid athlete in Brazil. Or in his appearance in the popular soap opera that puts him inside the homes of tens of millions of people.
Neymar is more than the future of Brazilian football. He is an idol on the field and a celebrity off it.
And it's only a matter of time before Europe gets a taste of the Brazilian youngster.
There have been rumors of Neymar moving to a top European team since he started playing regularly for Santos in 2009, but negotiations involving the 21-year-old forward have picked up steam in recent weeks and his transfer appears imminent.
Media in Spain and Brazil say he has already reached a deal to join Barcelona after the Confederations Cup in June. Santos directors have admitted they are talking to officials from top European clubs, including Barcelona, and Santos coach Muricy Ramalho acknowledged it will be hard to keep the player in Brazil when the transfer window opens in July.
"There were rumors before and nothing happened,'' Ramalho said. "But this time they really seem more serious. The rumors have picked up steam. When the market opens, we know there is this possibility. It will be a huge loss, the club will miss him.''
Neymar could become the most talked-about transfer prospect in July. This week he topped the list of most marketable athletes in the world in a report published by SporsPro magazine, finishing ahead of Barcelona forward Lionel Messi and golfer Rory McIlroy. The list, produced in association with Eurosport, ranks athletes from across the world according to their marketing potential over the next three years.
Few dispute Neymar's potential. Messi was quoted as saying this week that he would be "a wonderful signing'' for Barcelona.
But the Brazilian also has been heavily criticized in Europe, where he's known for his dives and alleged attempts to fake injuries.
Do an Internet search for Neymar and you'll find loads of videos of the player's mesmerizing skills and moves. The Brazilian won FIFA's award for the best goal of the year in 2011 and was a finalist last year. But you will also find lots of videos of the player's dives and supposed attempts to influence referees.
Pele has repeatedly said that Neymar has the potential to be the best player in the world, even better than Messi, but he is one of the critics who recently said Neymar should try to stop diving so much.
Neymar is also criticized for his disappointing performances in decisive moments both with Santos and Brazil. His recent lackluster performances with the national team attracted loud jeers from home fans.
"Nobody likes to be booed, but I don't really care,'' Neymar said recently. "I know what I can do.''
He will be carrying the country's hopes in the Confederations Cup, but after that it will likely be the European fans who will be able to see the youngster in action from up close.
Three teams are reportedly pushing to sign the nifty striker when the transfer window reopens - Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Santos last week reportedly rejected a ?20 million ($26 million) offer from Barcelona officials who were in Brazil.
Santos is trying to sell Neymar as quickly as possible because in six months the player will be allowed to sign a pre-contract with any other club, and the Brazilian team will not get anything in return. Some say that has made the player's value drop compared to previous years because clubs know that Santos risks receiving nothing.
"When I extended my contract everybody praised me for sticking to my word and not leaving the country,'' Neymar said Monday. "Now people are saying that I'm a bad character because I'm staying. There is nothing finalized yet. We'll try to do this in a way that is good for everybody.''
There has been an ongoing debate over whether Neymar should stay in Brazil or take the multimillion dollar offers from abroad. Some say he needs to leave as soon as possible to improve as a player, while others argue that he will be better off by playing where he is happiest, near his friends and relatives.
Former Brazil great Ronaldo, whose sports marketing company has Neymar under contract, has always wanted Neymar to make the move to Europe.
"He's only going to grow by playing against the best players in the world,'' Ronaldo said recently.
Others think that now is not the best time for him to leave.
"He should have gone a few years ago, now it's too close to the World Cup, it's going to take time for him to adapt in Europe,'' Brazil assistant coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said.
"I'm not sure he is going to play right away,'' added Ramalho, recalling other promising Brazilian players who made the move. "If he is going to Real Madrid, Robinho didn't play there, Kaka is not playing.''
Some fear the increased criticism could be forcing Neymar out of the country ahead of his original plans.
He officially rejected a ?35 million ($45 million) from Chelsea in 2010, and a year later Santos said five European teams contacted the club to try to sign the youngster, who eventually re-signed with Santos until the 2014 World Cup, with a buyout clause of ?65 million ($84 million).
The new contract didn't give Neymar the high salary that he would get in Europe, but gave him near total freedom to negotiate his personal sponsors in Brazil. He has now 11 main sponsors that give him nearly $20 million a year in earnings - including Nike, Panasonic, Red Bull, Volkswagen, Ambev, Santander and a local underwear company.
Neymar has led Santos to its greatest run since Pele stopped playing in the 1970s. He helped the club win the 2010 Brazilian Cup, the 2011 Copa Libertadores and three straight Sao Paulo state championships. He is the club's leading scorer in the post-Pele era.
"I'm still happy here and I'll keep playing and doing my best with Santos,'' Neymar said.
At least for now.