Pitchside Europe

Can Neymar be the spark that reinvigorates Barcelona?

Pitchside Europe

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The Neymar to Barcelona story was beginning to drag like the Cesc Fabregas to Camp Nou saga. An illicit image of the Brazilian watching Barça on TV was deemed news, a loose word from his father misinterpreted. When Real Madrid began to be linked to the Santos star they’d given a trial to when he was 14, Barça fans became nervous.

They can relax now. On Monday, queues of fans and tourists bought next season’s shirts at the six official club shops around the Catalan capital, with the word ‘Neymar’ on the back as popular as Messi.

A giant Barça shirt has been fitted onto the statue of Cristopher Colombus at the bottom of La Rambla – causing outrage from Espanyol fans at Sunday’s derby who protested that there is more than one top-flight football team in the city. They also turned their backs and booed a guard of honour for Barcelona, though they again applauded Andres Iniesta, best friend of their former captain Dani Jarque.

The shirt for the tiny framed Neymar will be much smaller, but the 21-year-old Brazilian is the new kid on the block after signing a five year deal with the Spanish champions for a reported €25 million fee.

Barcelona had long applied pressure to get Neymar to the club in 2013 and not 2014, following the World Cup in Brazil, as Neymar had stated many times. That was when his Santos contract ran up to, so Pele’s old club were under pressure to cash in or lose him for free in a year. Not that they owned all the rights to the player. Neymar was under no great pressure. He’s a commercial hit in Brazil and is well paid.

In the past, players moved from Brazil to Europe as soon as the offers came in, but the Brazilian economy has boomed and their top clubs can now pay top wages. Internacionale of Porto Alegre matched the wages paid by Internazionale of Milan when Diego Forlan moved to Brazil last year. Brazil’s top 20 clubs have increased their revenue by 34% on 2010.

The big European clubs still have the edge though, the Champions League is still seen as the competition for top players where standards are higher than any other football competition in the world.

Debate raged as to whether playing in Europe would improve Neymar as a player, rather than in the regional Sao Paulo championship in the months before the next World Cup.

“Europe would be good for Neymar,” said 1970 Brazil legend Tostao. “He has to evolve.”

Brazil won three World Cups without a single player in Europe, but money talked, prestige too.

Barça know that other newly monied rivals can offer a higher transfer fee, but they know too that no club is as attractive as they are to a South American player. The lifestyle is closer to Brazil, he’ll still have a beach and compatriots like Daniel Alves and Adriano. Neymar’s already trying to speak Spanish. And English.

Not that every South American forward is a success in Catalonia. Maradona, Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho excelled, but all the Rs played at another European club before Barça, while two exports who came directly from River Plate didn’t. Maxi Lopez flopped, while Javier Saviola was heralded as a saviour when he came from Argentina in 2001. It didn’t quite work out, though he’s enjoyed a solid career at the top level since. Robinho moved straight to Real Madrid and didn’t fulfil his potential either.

So what is Neymar? Potential to be the world’s best or overhyped upstart? Neymar has the star appeal and cheeky charisma, but how will he fit in with Lionel Messi, the world’s best player but also one who has an uneasy relationship with fellow strikers who are invariably played out of their best position. They can either adapt like Thierry Henry, or become frustrated and leave like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Neymar can play centrally or on the left.

Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff this week warned of the dangers of a ship having two captains. His word is gospel for many fans who are excited by the prospect of Neymar, but keen to see that he can play in the Barça system.

They’ve seen the best of video compilations on YouTube which show that Neymar can dribble and score, that he has great vision and that he’s quick, but no such video exists of him struggling with close marking, a criticism of him in Brazil. The other is that he’s very slight.

Man-marking often forces him wide, which could suit Barça, with Messi and he interchanging. Messi often takes two men, something Neymar has been doing for years. They could free up even more space for each other. If it works, it could be magnificent for a Barcelona side who’ve struggled to reach the intensity of previous seasons in the past four months. They needed fresh impetus as much as their knackered players needed a rest – one most of them won’t get as they’ll play in next month’s Confederations Cup in Brazil. Neymar could provide that spark.

Andy Mitten - @andymitten

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