In the footsteps of God

Neymar will be ready for the Barcelona challenge — he will know that he should do okay if he continues to tread the path taken by ‘El Diego’. No small goal this, but one certainly within the grasp of an exceptionally talented footballer. By Abilash Nalapat.

May 2010. The event is a press conference in Rio announced by Dunga, the coach of the Brazilian team, to announce his team for the World Cup in South Africa. Journalist Tim Vickery of the BBC reported a rather extraordinary scene from the press conference, which succeeded the team announcement, during which it came to light that the 18-year-old prodigy from Santos FC, Neymar da Silva Santos Junior (just Neymar for the adoring football-crazy Brazilian public), was not part of the South Africa-bound team.

A scribe, forgetting the wafer thin Brazilian line between the twin identities of a football journalist and a fan of the sport, tore into Dunga mincing no words, while telling the former Brazilian player turned coach that he had just joined Argentinean Cesar Luis Menotti as the two most hated South American coaches ever in World Cup history. Just for the record, Menotti had left out an 18-year-old prodigy from his team for the 1978 World Cup at home and was berated widely by the Argentinean press and public, who predicted the teenager to evolve into football’s greatest player ever. The player’s name: Diego Armando Maradona.

Cut to May 2013. Santos FC, famous globally as the club of Pele, has finally realised that its mission of keeping Neymar at all costs till the home World Cup in 2014, is not one steeped in economic logic much to the chagrin of Santos fans as well as the legion of Brazilian football fans. Neymar, now 21, is already the seventh richest footballer in the world according to a Football France survey; he is tipped to overtake Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the richest and most marketed footballer in the next two years; and he has been named as the most marketable athlete by Sports Pro Magazine, in a recent article. Neymar has been the architect of Santos’s Copa Liberadores (the South American equivalent of the UEFA Champions League) triumph in 2011; has scored more than 150 goals for the club, and has engineered innumerable assists.

Neymar has also scored 20 goals for Team Brazil in 32 appearances and has also been in the crosshairs of one of the many juvenile ego tussles between the two best footballers ever, Pele and Maradona — an argument regarding whether Neymar or Lionel Messi is the best player in the world, with each legend unsurprisingly fighting his national corner. No surprise then that the Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona renewed their interests recently with gigantic financial bids worth over Euro60 million. It is not known why Neymar opted for Barcelona over Real Madrid in spite of the Catalans making the lower financial offer. Perhaps, it had something to do with Neymar wanting to follow the path of Maradona in more ways than just being dropped for a World Cup at the age of 18!

Maradona was the first instance of a million dollar transfer between a South American club and a European one — incidentally Barcelona — in June 1982 when FIFA’s public choice as the player of the last century moved from Boca Juniors after a long public campaign to keep him in Argentina had to be eventually given up because of harsh economic realities. Argentina’s Football Association, the superstar’s first club Argentinos Juniors, one of Argentina’s two leading clubs Boca Juniors, which had taken the player on loan from Argentinos Juniors in 1981, largely to absorb the smaller club’s debts incurred to keep Maradona in the country, and the working class football mob called ‘Barras Bravas’, were all protagonists of the ‘ Maradona no se vende’ (Maradona is not for sale) posturing till Barcelona’s then enormous offer of USD7 million was accepted by Argentinos Juniors and Boca Juniors. Both Argentinean clubs were reeling under the combined weight of the hefty wages paid to the precocious teenage national treasure and an economic crisis in which the government had to announce devaluation of the Peso by 30 percent.

But wasn’t all the money spent to keep the legend at home worth its weight in gold? The Argentinean public enjoyed as boy wonder Maradona scored 140 goals in 200 games and conjured up countless assists for Argentinos Juniors. He also scored 28 goals and was instrumental in many more assists in 40 appearances for Boca Juniors. The icing on the cake was an amazing solo effort in a hat-trick scored in April 1981 in Boca Junior’s local derby against archrival River Plate.

After he spent two injury and illness prone seasons in Barcelona, Europe witnessed the full force of Maradona, when the demigod ‘walked on water’ in Napoli, Italy, between 1986 and 1990, almost singlehandedly inspiring a club which had no silverwares to show, to two Serie A titles and two runner-up slots in what was then the toughest league in the world.

Just as in the Maradona saga involving Argentions Juniors and Boca Juniors, the pressure of keeping Neymar in Brazil for four years told on Santos’ coffers. In an interview just after winning the Copa Libertadores in 2011, the club’s first continental silverware since the win in 1963, of which Pele was the major architect, the club’s president Luis Alvaro de Olievera Ribiero had said that keeping Neymar till 2014 was the club’s priority — Santos had Neymar on a USD2 million a season contract, a gigantic figure for a club in the Brazilian League. It is conjectured that his wages went up to an estimated Euro1.5 million a month with support from sponsors and government bodies. However, the huge spending led to the Copa Libertadores-winning side being dismantled.

Players such as Elano, Adriano, Alex Sandro, Danilo, Jonathan and Paulo Ganso, who all played a leading role in the continental triumph, were sold. It was evident that the club had to let go of Neymar sooner than later and bag the riches that came its way to rebuild.

The man who cut his teeth in Pele’s club will soon be seen showcasing his skills in the same team as Lionel Messi. But Neymar will be ready for the challenge — he will know that he should do okay if he continues to tread the path taken by ‘El Diego’. No small goal this, but one certainly within the grasp of an exceptionally talented footballer.