When Neymar ran out for Santos for the final time last week, emerging to eardrum-bursting screams from the stands at Brasilia's Estadio Mane Garrincha, it was to the biggest attendance at a South American league game ever. A total £2.24m was spent on tickets to the match. It's a measure of just how much the 21-year-old - who next season will join the likes of Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta at Barcelona - means to Brazil and its culture, a sign of how firmly he is regarded in his homeland as the next great superstar of the game.
With the nation, the most decorated in football history, languishing at 19th in the FIFA rankings, a number of disappointing tournaments behind them and severe doubts over the side's capabilities going into next year's World Cup - the debate currently raging in local media is whether were Brazil not hosting the tournament they'd even qualify - these are dark times for Brazil. Neymar, now off to test himself in Europe, is their brightest beacon of hope, a player whose eye-popping flourishes of skill recall Ronaldinho at his peak, but whose finishing reminds more of mercurial legends Pele and Ronaldo.
Appearing 225 times in Santos' famous black and white, Neymar managed an impressive 136 goals, winning three Golden Boots, three championship titles and becoming an icon of the game, written into Brazilian soap operas, plastered across Billboards and mobbed by fans wherever he travelled. No wonder, then, when it came to bidding him farewell last Sunday, they did so in style: local new reports described the scenes as like a "funeral party": sad to see him go but accepting of his need to move on and thankful for the memories. Pele said it best: "It's fantastic for him, it's fantastic for the sport. But for us who love Santos, it is not so fantastic."
The World Cup winner has long been one of Neymar's biggest supporters, even once claiming he is better than Messi, who he'll soon be linking up with in attack for Barcelona, and says he is certain the 21-year-old has what it takes to cut in Europe. The European game poses the player's biggest challenge yet - faster, more physical, with the defenders he'll encounter in the UEFA Champions League unlikely to afford him the same reverence he's used to back home. But with a rich history of Brazilian Blaugranas - Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Romario to name but a few - to be inspired by, there's an almost rabid excitement around his transfer to the Catalan club. Who wouldn't be excited by the tantalising prospect of the most technically gifted young showman of the modern game partnering with the unstoppable Leo Messi, collecting passes from Andres Iniesta and going head-to-head with players like Andrea Pirlo and Wayne Rooney on the domestic game's biggest stage? These are the calibre of players he'll be facing in next year's World Cup. Better to begin facing them now.
Only four players have ever managed to score 100 times by the age of 20: Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo and Neymar. With that comes great expectation, and performing in Europe he'll have tremendous pressure heaped upon his shoulders. But for Neymar, always so relaxed on the pitch, grinning beneath that trademark Mohican hair, you imagine he'll take it all in his stride.
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