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Jan 1, 2013

Neymarvellous: South America's finest

With the close of every year comes a glut of awards, official and unofficial, and, not to be left out, South America has its own gongs. Of course, being South America these couldn't possibly be handed out other than at the last minute, and thus it's become something of a tradition for the awards - handed out by Uruguayan newspaper El Pais - to be announced on New Year's Eve.

The 2012 edition of the awards brings an interesting 'Best XI' and a closely fought race for the managerial prize (topped by two Argentines), but the least surprising, and most headline-catching, of the awards was the news that Neymar has been named Footballer of The Year for the second year running, by a landslide margin.

The 199 votes he picked up were a record, as were the 149 by which he beat second-placed Paolo Guerrero, the Peruvian forward who only moved to Corinthians from Hamburg halfway through the year. Guerrero's second place is a nice birthday present - he turns 29 on New Year's Day. The podium was completed by Lucas Moura, now Paris Saint-Germain-bound after the French side beat Manchester United and Internazionale to his signature earlier in the year.

The continent's balance of power was reflected by the fact that six members of the 'Best XI' play in the Brazilian league - including Ronaldinho, who's been revitalised since moving from Flamengo to Atletico Mineiro in June, and was named best player in the Brasileirao - but Neymar dominated the voting in spite of the fact that Santos 'only' won the Sao Paulo state championship and the Recopa Sudamericana (the South American Supercup), a competition almost no-one watches, played between the winners of the previous year's Copas Libertadores and Sudamericana.

It's not hard to see why. Even having been rested for many of Santos' league matches during their run to the Copa Libertadores semi-final, he scored 23 goals in 31 matches between the league and Copa Libertadores, and another 20 goals in 16 games in the state championship. As well as this, he got his best annual haul yet for the national side: nine goals in 11 appearances. Although he continues to insist he won't leave Santos until after the 2014 World Cup, those of us who've already seen plenty of him are getting increasingly interested to see how he gets on when the seemingly inevitable move to Europe does come to pass.

The most likely destination for such a transfer currently seems to be Barcelona, where Neymar's favourite player, Lionel Messi, resides (and has just won another poll by El Pais, to find the best player in Europe, as voted for by that continent's journalists. The corresponding award Neymar has won is voted for by Latin American journalists). Even with Neymar's 2012 having been less successful on a team basis than 2011, it's still a mouth-watering partnership to imagine.

Although perceptions of South American players are often influenced by the fact that fans back in their home countries don't get to watch them up close and personally when they play in Europe, there are few if any on the continent - Pele apart - who would dispute Messi's position as best player in the world. Although Neymar is clearly the best in South America, even he realises he has a long way to go before he reaches Messi's level.

A lot of that growth as a player is going to be required of him in the coming spell, which will see 18 months of vital importance for the Brazilian national side and Neymar as their talisman. With the Confederations Cup providing Brazil's only vaguely competitive matches between now and the country's first home World Cup in 64 years, a good performance will be expected. When the main event comes by, the pressure will be even higher, and some - myself included - feel that whilst Neymar's talent is undeniable, he'd benefit from a move to Europe, and with it greater exposure to defensive pressing than he gets in Brazil, before rather than after the World Cup.

It still seems that 2014-15 is highly likely to be his first season in Europe, though, and if both he and Messi continue to improve at their current rates, and he does indeed move to Barcelona as both the club and he seem to hope, it'll be interesting to see how the Catalans readjust to the arrival of a forward who, surely, will have to be given a major role of his own in the side's attack.

Imagining what a Messi-Neymar partnership would look like is practically impossible, in no small part because both players still have so much development ahead of them. Whilst that statement might seem vaguely ridiculous in Messi's case, he's still only 25, and potentially still a year or two from his peak. Neymar, meanwhile, won't even turn 21 until early February.

It's probably safe to assume that, should Neymar arrive, he won't push Messi out of his central role in Barca's attack, but that wouldn't seem to be a big obstacle in bringing him in - he's at his best when cutting in from the left, while Messi of course operates centrally and often drops to the right. It might be impossible to say now how effective such a partnership would be - mainly because it's impossible to say how effective its two components will be on their own by then - but there's no reason to suppose it wouldn't work.

Jose Pekerman, the Argentine who took charge of Colombia at the start of the year, beat his compatriot and Argentina boss Alejandro Sabella to the managerial gong, after both did brilliant work with their respective sides during 2012. Tite, Corinthians' Libertadores and Club World Cup-winning boss, had to settle for third place.

Neymar's dominance in the individual player award is clear, though. If his ongoing statements over his desire to remain in Brazil until after the next World Cup are taken at face value, it'll be a while before Europe gets to watch Neymar up close and personal; the voting for this year's prize reflects the fact that the journalists of Latin America are grateful they can see him for a little while longer.

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