Is Neymar worth all the hype? We'll just have to wait and see
Neymar is 22. Neymar has 5 million followers on Instagram. Neymar has double that -- and a little more -- on Twitter. Neymar's goals have racked up countless millions of hits on YouTube and have been doing so ever since he was a teenager, long before most people in Europe had a chance to see him play a full 90-minute match.
Neymar is 22. Neymar has signed sponsorship deals with (deep breath) Nike, Claro, Guarana Antarctica, Santander, Panasonic, Red Bull and Unilever, among others. Neymar has been chosen as the single most marketable athlete in the world by SportsPro Media. His face beams out from billboards all over Brazil as the country prepares for the World Cup. Neymar is to be their star, if they have their way.
Neymar is 22. Neymar has already been the subject of what questionable convention means we must style as a "transfer tussle" between two of the biggest clubs in the world. Neymar has already cost what may prove to be almost a world-record transfer fee, if the latest figures offered by Barcelona -- which beat Real Madrid to his signature -- prove to be correct.
Neymar is 22. Neymar has already forced FIFA to change their rules thanks to his decision to dummy a penalty while still at Santos, the club where he made his name. It was no ordinary feint in a game against Sao Paulo in 2010, but a full-on stop -- what the Brazilians call a "paradinha." After watching the footage, FIFA decreed that feinting to take the kick, only to stop in the run-up and wait for a goalkeeper to commit, is no longer permitted.
Neymar is 22. He has already brought down a club president thanks to the way that transfer wrangle worked out, at one of the most powerful clubs in the world. It was not his fault, but it was his arrival at Barcelona that precipitated the demise of Sandro Rosell, an event that dragged the Camp Nou out of uncertainty and down, right down, into unmitigated chaos.
Neymar is 22. Neymar has been busy.
There is just one question. Amid all the riches, all the sponsorship deals, all the hero worship -- as the excellent Alex Bellos has pointed out, Neymar is something like a footballing Justin Bieber, such is the devotion he inspires in his large teenage fan base -- and all the mayhem, the question refuses to go away. Is Neymar actually worth it?
That is not to say that he is not an elaborately gifted football player. He is. Of course he is. He is one of the best players in the world. But that group can be considered moderately large; "world-class," the chosen epithet for anyone who belongs to it, can be applied to a couple of hundred players. The true elite, though, can be narrowed down to just a handful.
He has all the trappings of being in that small cadre alongside Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Neymar has the string of model girlfriends; he has the commercial links; he has the ego-boosting transfer fee.
He even, and this is something that none of his rivals can boast, has a political voice: his #weareallmonkeys hashtag -- in response to a Villarreal fan throwing a banana at teammate Daniel Alves, but far from spontaneous as it had been planned in a Sao Paulo marketing agency for weeks -- turned him from young football player into agitator, activist and spokesman.
The way he chose to make his point added to the impression that he is the player who most truly gets social media. You do not get the impression his social media accounts are operated exclusively by his apparatchiks. His feeds aren't quite so cravenly commercial as Ronaldo's, for example. Neymar is comfortable with Twitter and Instagram and interacting with his fans; his accounts offer a snapshot of his life, his character, his opinions. He is the superstar of the selfie era.
But all of that just adds to the lingering doubt. His talent is not in question. What is up for debate is whether the hype around him -- the Twitter frenzy, the sponsorship deals, the transfer tussle and the YouTube goal compilations -- has affected our perception of that talent. Does the actual Neymar match up to the Neymar as he is presented in adverts? Does the reality of Neymar live up to the concept of Neymar?
To most people, it does. Pele may have been somewhat premature in declaring -- while he was still at Santos -- that the only difference between Neymar and Messi was that the latter "has more experience," but Neymar's displays in the Confederations Cup last summer, while carrying Brazil to the title, did more than enough to hint that here, genuinely, was an elite player.
It is inevitable, obviously, that Neymar has been hailed as the next Pele -- by people, this time, other than Pele -- but, in truth, it is not an entirely satisfactory parallel. Neymar is better coming in from the left flank than he is as a pure No. 10. He seems to contain little flashes of all his predecessors, too: trickery and imagination reminiscent of Ronaldinho, an ability to carry the ball similar to Kaka, a directness at times drawn straight from Ronaldo. There is a joy to his play, too: That is what Brazil enjoyed the most last summer. That he seemed to be having fun. It seemed natural; it seemed theirs.
The Confederations Cup, though, marked a distinct before and after in his career. Prior to last summer, Neymar was cocooned in the relative obscurity (emphasis on the relative) of South America; after, he was exposed to the harsh glare of Barcelona, Europe and the Champions League. Millions watch if you play for Santos; many millions more watch when you're in a clasico.
Neymar arrived in Catalunya as then-president Sandro Rosell's big coup, of course. He was the man Florentino Perez wanted but could not get. He was the heir to Messi. He was the third of football's holy trinity.
It did not quite work out that way. Neymar has had his moments, but it felt telling that in their final game of the season, with the league title on the line, Gerardo Martino left Neymar on the bench, preferring Alexis Sanchez's speed and Pedro's impersonation of a child on a sugar rush to try to break down Atletico Madrid's redoubtable back line. His exclusion of Xavi was more pointed, but leaving Neymar on the bench for an hour seemed to be a confession that, put simply, the Brazilian had not delivered.
Again, here, everything is relative. That Neymar has not shone consistently at Barcelona in his first season does not make him a bad player. It simply suggests that contrary to Pele's belief, he is not quite on a par with Messi; at least, not yet. As Cesc Fabregas has found, it is all very well standing out among the bulk of your peers, but when you find yourself in the rarefied air of the immortals, even giants start to look, well, normal-sized.
This World Cup has long been about Neymar. He has always been seen as his nation's great hope. Brazil's chances, to a large extent, of winning a sixth global crown and erasing the pain of 1950 hang on his slender shoulders. But there is something else at stake, too: it provides a chance for him to answer, once and for all, the question about who, and what, he is. Is Neymar -- as his nickname in Brazil has it -- simply a marketing phenomenon? Or is he something more? Is he worth all the fuss?
He is only 22. That seems awfully young to be the subject of such existential questions. But then Neymar has always been a man in a hurry. This is his chance to get to where he always wanted to be.