Year Zero: The making of Neymar (Santos, 2010)
Had you asked a hundred Santos fans to identify the club’s brightest star at the start of 2010, you wouldn't have received anything close to a unanimous response.
A good chunk of the vote would likely have gone to Paulo Henrique Ganso, the elegant playmaker with a topographer’s mastery of space. Robinho, back at the Vila Belmiro on loan from Manchester City, would also have been a popular choice. A few contrary types might even have chosen Arouca or Wesley, the side’s midfield dynamos, or arch goalhanger André.
Plenty would have plumped for Neymar, the wisp of a forward who had emerged from the hinterland of boy-wonderdom in 2009, scoring on his first start and generally looking far more assured than a 17-year-old should. Yet as one decade dissolved into the next, there was no consensus that he – rather than Ganso, say – would be the club’s next big thing.
Twelve months later, though? Well, there wasn't much of an argument then.
In a fine state
Os Meninos da Vila, they called them – a starry-eyed reference to two previous groups of Santos kids who had come through the youth ranks together and shone for the senior side. In 1978, it was Juary, Pita and João Paulo who had captured hearts and minds. Diego, Elano and Robinho had followed in 2002. It was fitting, then, that the latter was knocking about in an unofficial Fairy Godfather role as Ganso, André and Neymar took responsibility in the São Paulo state championship.
Brazil’s state leagues can be tedious at the best of times, but that 2010 edition of the Paulistão was a treat as Santos sliced through the field with juvenile abandon. The Peixe started with a 4-0 demolition of Rio Branco (Neymar and Ganso netted two beauties apiece) and rarely let up thereafter, clunking through the gears to finish the round-robin stage with 15 wins and 61 goals from 19 games.
Neymar, stationed on the left of the attack but granted licence to roam, took just four games to better his tally from the 2009 edition. By April 4, his cause furthered by a pair of Copa do Brasil walkovers (“A historic thrashing,” was O Globo’s verdict on the 10-0 victory over poor Naviraiense), the teenager had scored 14 times – as many as he managed in the entirety of the previous year. The shackles of inexperience were loosening fast.
Yet to focus on the quantity is to do a disservice to the quality. The majority of Neymar’s goals in those hazy autumn months were stunning, showcasing the poise and sense of adventure that we now know to be synonymous with his play. Against Grêmio Barueri, he sat his marker down with a fiendish cut-back before finishing.
A week later, he danced past what seemed like a hundred generic Santo André henchmen and stroked the ball into the corner when he got bored. That strike earned him a nomination for the FIFA Puskás Award; his second against Naviraiense in March probably should probably been referred to Human Rights Watch.
Style and substance
If those goals went some way to endearing Neymar to the Santos faithful, it was his habit of winding up the seasiders’ biggest rivals that sealed the deal. The kid from Mogi das Cruzes may have weighed about 50 kilos soaking wet – former coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo had memorably described him as a ‘butterfly fillet’ the previous season – but he was not afraid to make his presence felt.
In the first derby of the campaign, he befuddled legendary São Paulo goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni with the paradinha (little stop) penalty that would briefly become his trademark, theatrically pausing at the end of his run-up and rolling the ball into the unguarded side of the goal.
In the second, against Corinthians, he followed a crackerjack opener with some schoolyard horseplay, flicking the ball over the head of veteran defender Chicão after the referee had stopped play for a free-kick. A mass brawl ensued. “I couldn’t resist,” Neymar said afterwards. “I’ll always try something different; you don’t stand out by just doing the normal things.”
Clássico number three brought another goal and the first red card of his career for what was, in truth, a fairly innocuous challenge on Palmeiras midfielder Pierre. Then, after a rare quiet day in the first leg of the Paulistão semi-final against São Paulo, he was back at it in the return match, scoring with his arm and subsequently beating an exasperated Ceni with another matador penalty as Santos sealed a 6-2 aggregate success. Across those five matches, a big-game player was born.