“In another world,” proclaimed Brazilian media conglomerate Globo, which went on to praise Barcelona’s “extraterrestrial football.” Lance! took a rather different tack, running a headline that read, “Neymar spends less than a minute on the ball in Messi’s classroom.”
Those seem to be the dominant and divergent reactions in Brazil to Sunday’s Club World Cup final that saw UEFA Champions League winners Barcelona trounce Copa Libertadores champions Santos in Yokohama. On the one hand, there is the compulsive response to extol the virtues of Barcelona’s beautiful football; on the other a kneejerk reaction to defend the country’s top young talent. There is truth in both, and when you put the hands together you get the story of Sunday’s match and what it means.
Santos manager Muricy Ramalho addressed both approaches in his post-match comments. “[Barcelona] have changed the whole concept of attacking by playing without a genuine striker,” he remarked, adding there wasn’t a team in Brazil that could properly adopt Barcelona’s style—perhaps a hint that many of the South American country’s clubs may now attempt to mimic the Catalans, something that could only be positive in a football culture more obsessed with developing wing-backs than playmaking midfielders. (Tim Vickery foresaw this fallout in his Footy Show interview with TheScore’s James Sharman last week.)
But Ramalho also addressed the inevitable—the performance of Neymar, or lack thereof—by saying he still thought the forward would realize the considerable expectations already so long on his teenage shoulders. “Messi showed once again tonight that he’s the number one,” he said. “But I think Neymar’s time will come.”
It probably will, but it would also be foolish at this point or any other to measure Neymar against Messi. The Argentine is without question the player of his generation, and by the time he’s finished shredding the record books like he shredded the Santos defense in Japan he may very likely be the player of every generation. He’s in the conversation already. Neymar could have a very nice career without even coming close to Messi’s level.
In a way, Neymar’s legend is already secure. Although he is in the early stages of what looks sure to be a fascinating career and has yet to make that much-anticipated move to Europe—a process that may be quickened after Sunday’s eye-opening experience—he has succeeded, whether he meant to or not, in changing the relationship between the European super-clubs and the South American sides they used to pillage.
Had Neymar been born in 1987 rather than 1992 he might very well have been part of the Barcelona team that won the 2011 Club World Cup, or the Real Madrid outfit they beat in last weekend’s Clasico. Instead, he came of age in a period of unprecedented economic growth in Brazil, growth that allowed Santos to offer him a wage comparable with what he’d earn in Europe, growth that made it possible for television rights deals and sponsorship contracts to flood Brazilian football with money.
This is why Brazilian fans and media will so quickly spring to Neymar’s defense: he’s already a hero in his home country, worshipped for spurning the patronizing offers of Chelsea and Real Madrid for his signature. And while it’s likely he’ll finally move to Europe between the end of the 2012 Olympic Games and the conclusion of his contract in 2014, the mark he has left on Brazilian football, the way he has changed the conversation, has already sealed his legacy.
When he does leave, Brazilian football might very well be undergoing the evolution Ramalho hinted at, to something more fluid and nuanced and beautiful. And that stylistic shift, along with the most important step in Neymar’s development, will be able to be traced back to Sunday’s Club World Cup final. That’s why it was such an occasion. That’s why, at least in Brazil, it will be remembered.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer