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The Neymar Question

Written by Sebastien on 26 February 2013. Posted in World Cup Blog

This past week has seen much back and forth over Pelé’s comments regarding Neymar, the much-coveted Santos forward who is expected to lead Brazil’s charge to glory on home soil in World Cup 2014. Pelé raised concerns over Neymar’s recent performances for Brazil and argued that the youngster’s lack of international experience leaves him ill-equipped to carry the burden of an expectant nation.

It is an argument others have raised over the last year or two as it has become clear that Neymar intends to stay in Brazil until after the World Cup. But the fact that it has now been reiterated by Pelé, the man who spent the entirety of his top-level career in Brazil, has raised eyebrows in certain quarters. How could the man who turned down numerous opportunities to migrate to Europe criticise Neymar for doing the same?

The reality is that Pelé played in an era in which it was acceptable, indeed normal, for a player to remain in their country of birth for the duration of their career. Their development and career goals were perfectly well served at home.

These days that is not the case. The money-led globalisation of the game means that the best players in the world now congregate in Europe’s Champions League. The biggest talents from Africa, Asia and the Americas all want to test themselves in this arena, and by doing so they improve as players, serving to benefit their countries at international level.

Brazil’s improving economy has allowed the nation’s clubs to bring back players from Europe and hold onto their talented youngsters longer than they might have done five years ago. But it is not yet at the level of Europe’s best leagues, and the Copa Libertadores, fine competition though it is, does not offer the same depth of quality as the Champions League.

There have been signs over the last year or so that Neymar’s development has stalled. He remains an immensely gifted player, but one who appears to have little idea how to compensate when he comes up against teams who stay compact and constrict space between defence and midfield.

Neymar was effectively marked out of both the quarter and semi-finals of last year’s Copa Libertadores; he was all but invisible as Brazil crumbled to defeat to Mexico in the gold medal match at the London Olympics; and he was again largely anonymous in Brazil’s friendly defeat to England in early February.

The likes of Oscar (Chelsea) and Lucas Moura (Paris Saint-Germain) are gaining experience and improving themselves by regularly playing against strong opposition domestically and in continental competition; Neymar is currently involved in the São Paulo state championship, where he often faces opponents from the second, third and fourth divisions of the national pyramid.

He is in danger of becoming a laggard. An exceptionally talented laggard maybe, but a laggard all the same. It is not often one can say this, but Pelé is right: for both his own and Brazil’s sake, Neymar needs to move to Europe sooner rather than later.

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