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Sep 6, 2011

Believe the Neymar hype

The 19-year-old they call 'the next Pele' entered the stadium to the whistles and screams he's long grown accustomed to. With a career trajectory as steep as his trademark Mohawk, Neymar is arguably the most hyped footballer on the planet right now.

The Brazilian was already big news before rumours of a deal to join Barcelona in 2013 took his star into the stratosphere. Neymar's club Santos moved quickly to refute them, but even they accept it's only a matter of time and money before the twinkle-toed teenager arrives in Europe for good.

If Chelsea had their way, Brazil's friendly against Ghana at Craven Cottage would have felt like a home game. But in football there are still some things even Roman Ambramovich can't buy, and it says much about Neymar's potential that those controlling his interests aren't ready to cash in their chips yet.

It was three-and-a-half minutes before he saw the ball on a wet and windswept night in South-West London. Taking possession out wide he feinted to go inside, shaped to go down the line and was unceremoniously chopped to the turf. A few seconds, a few touches - that's all it takes Neymar to get the crowd to their feet these days.

Operating on Brazil's right, in a three-pronged attack spearheaded by Leandro Damaio, Neymar eased into the game and grew steadily in influence as a highly competitive first half played out before a hysterical crowd. There were times his slight frame gave up possession too easily, and times he went to ground too easily. But there was still much to excite.

Two of Neymar's best moments came in combination with the familiar face mirroring his duties on the Brazil's left - a man who knows more than most about the weight of expectancy, Ronaldinho. The 31-year-old is said to be undergoing something of a footballing renaissance of late. Perhaps the emergence of Neymar has sparked a new enthusiasm in him.

The pair certainly seemed to be relishing each other's company when they exchanged instinctive passes twice on the edge of the Ghana box. And there was more than a touch of the Ronaldinho about Neymar's disguised, as his flicked pass over the top threatened to unlock the Ghana defence.

Neymar's most telling contribution in the first 45 minutes ultimately proved to be the foul he drew from Daniel Opare however. The defender picked up a yellow card for the tackle, and was duly sent off on 33 minutes for another clumsy challenge on Lucio. With Ghana down to ten men, Brazil were freed to enjoy themselves. When Damaio put them ahead on the stroke of half-time the result was all-but assured.

With the shackles off, Neymar was given license to roam more centrally in the second half and he positively thrived in the role. Drifting around behind the main striker he begged for the ball at every opportunity and began to exhibit the swagger he's built a reputation on. Suddenly he was bouncing off the challenges that were knocking him down in first half. What's more, he was enjoying himself.

What struck me most was how comfortable he looked at Brazil's hub - launching attacks and dictating the far more experienced players around him. Neymar was making just his 11th international appearance at Craven Cottage, yet at times he commanded the field as if he'd been playing in yellow and blue for a decade. If his home World Cup had come this summer, he would have been ready.

As it stands Neymar will have to wait three more years before taking to the game's biggest stage, by which time he will almost certainly be playing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe and be carrying the hopes of a football nation on his slim shoulders. What price the story of Brazil 2014 being Neymar versus Lionel Messi. You wouldn't bet against it.

For now, however, Neymar remains in the shadow of a man who's been accused of letting his potential go to waste. When the final whistle blew at Craven Cottage it was Ronaldinho who drew the biggest cheers from the Brazilian fans. And it is Ronaldinho who will be most prominent in Tuesday's reports, having come close with a trademark free-kick late on.

The great entertainer showed glimpses of his best on Monday night and Brazil's footballing heart will be praying he can now complete a full rehabilitation. After all, the thought of Ronaldinho and Neymar working in tandem in 2014 is about as Brazilian as it gets. It might just happen.

What better antidote to a drab and drizzly night in English capital than the visit of the world's most alluring football team, with the game's brightest young talent at their hub and one of its most gifted talents on the comeback trail.

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