As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
The Next Pele.
Over the years, some young Brazilian forward would emerge with skills so flashy and potential so dazzling that the inevitable comparisons with the legendary Brazilian are made. But perhaps none have come along such hype as Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, more commonly known around the world as Neymar.
Regarded very highly in his native Brazil, Neymar quickly rose to fame as a teenage prodigy with Santos FC (the same club that produced Pele) as well as Brazil youth teams. During that time, he became the subject of numerous offers from several big European clubs such as Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now, at the young age of 22, he is expected to be the face of the new Selecao.
Many Brazilians, including Pele himself, believe that Neymar will eventually become the best footballer in the world. There are also many doubters who want to see him produce in Europe (where the competition is better) before making such proclamations. Based on his first season at Barcelona, the questions still remain. Can Neymar answer those questions with a great performance in the 2014 World Cup? Supporters of the five-time World Cup champions certainly hope so, as Brazil looks to become the first host nation to win the World Cup since France in 1998.
Before Going Pro
Neymar was born in Mogi das Cruzes, Sao Paulo on February 5, 1992. At the age of 11 his family moved to Santos, where he was offered a contract by Santos FC and entered their youth academy. Neymar was such a sensation at the youth level that, by the age of 14, he was invited to join the youth team at Real Madrid. By the age of 17, Santos FC signed him to a full professional contract.
Neymar made his first team debut with Santos FC on March 7th 2009 (at just 17 years of age) as a substitute. The young Brazilian accounted for himself quite well during his debut season, scoring 14 goals for the club in 48 appearances. He continued to blossom in 2010, improving his goal-scoring rate to 42 goals in 60 matches. Playing alongside Robinho (on loan from Manchester City), Oscar and Ganso, he helped Santos win the Campeonato Paulista that year and was named the best player in the competition. His fame grew across the country, and pretty soon he was being compared to Santos greats such as teammate Robinho and the legendary Pele. His fame also draw the attention of European clubs. Both West Ham United and Chelsea made bids for the forward that year, only to be rejected by Santos.
In 2011, Neymar helped Santos win the Copa Libertadores (the South American equivalent to Europe’s Champions League) for the first time since 1963, when Pele played for the club. Santos continued to reject advances from other European clubs, including Real Madrid, for their star player and rewarded Neymar with a contract extension making him among the highest paid players in the world. He was also awarded the 2011 South American Footballer of the Year (which he won win again the following year). Santos would retain the Campeonista Paulista in 2012, with Neymar once again named the best player of the tournament. He was also the leading goalscorer in the 2012 Copa Libertadores with 8 goals, though Santos were eliminated in the semifinals by eventual champions Corinthians.
Neymar played his final match for Santos on May 26, 2013. The following day he announced that he would sign with Barcelona and join the club following the 2013 Confederations Cup. He ended his first full season with 15 goals in 41 appearances.
After impressive performances at the Under-17 level for Brazil, including at the 2009 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, there were many who clamored for Neymar to be included in the 2010 World Cup squad. However, Brazil manager Dunga opted to leave him off the national side based on his lack of international experience. He would make his debut with the senior squad on August 10, 2010 (about a month following the World Cup) against the United States, making the occasion with a goal in a 2-0 win. Neymar was selected for the 2011 Copa America squad in which Brazil was eliminated in the quarterfinals in a penalty shoot-out against Paraguay. The following year, he was selected in the squad for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Brazil made to the gold medal game but lost to 2-1 to Mexico.
Neymar was selected as the centerpiece of the 2013 Confederations Cup squad by new Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari. He had a wonderful tournament, scoring four goals in five matches — including the final against Spain in the 3-0 victory. He was awarded the Golden Ball for the player of the tournament.