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From the steamy heart of Brazil, where football talent blooms like orchids under the Amazon sun, a young baller emerged. Destined to rewrite history, he wasn’t just another samba-footed prodigy; he was ‘The Prince’ — Pele’s successor. 

But before the roar of the crowds and stash of trophies, where did this legend’s journey begin?

Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, popularly known as Neymar, is a Brazilian forward who currently plays for Al Hilal in the Saudi Pro League. Neymar started his football journey at a young age, catching the attention of Santos FC. 

The club recognized his talent and signed him to a contract in 2003. He then joined Santos’ youth academy, a renowned institution that has nurtured Brazilian football stars such as Coutinho, Diego, and Elano.

Early Years at Santos

Neymar made his professional debut at 17 and soon began to catch the eye of both local and international fans around the world. 

While in the youth academy, Neymar became friends with Paulo Henrique Ganso. Neymar and Ganso formed a dynamic attacking duo, showcasing exceptional chemistry on the field. 

Neymar and Ganso
Source: NeymarJr

Neymar, known for his flair, skill, and goal-scoring ability, often benefited from Ganso’s vision and playmaking skills. Ganso, on the other hand, was a creative midfielder with excellent passing and vision, providing key assists for Neymar and other teammates.

Together, they created a formidable partnership that helped Santos win several titles, including the Copa Libertadores in 2011.

Comparisons with Legends

Neymar’s years at Santos were a great success, and his impressive displays on the pitch at that age earned him comparisons with the likes of Pele, Kaka, and Ronaldinho. 

And rightfully so. Neymar started his career very early, just like Pele did in his time, and with his talent and projected impact in football, the comparison wasn’t far-fetched. 

In the case of Kaka, they were both explosive and mercurial players in terms of wiggling their way through defenders and creating chaos whenever they had the ball in and around the penalty area. 

His dazzling dribbles, creative style of play, and prolific goal-scoring made him stand out, reminiscent of the creativity that characterized Ronaldinho’s prime.

Neymar’s performances for the Seleção, the Brazilian national football team, further fueled the comparisons. 

Representing Brazil in major tournaments, including the FIFA World Cup, Neymar showcased leadership, maturity, and an ability to handle the immense pressure associated with wearing the iconic yellow jersey.

Like his predecessors, Neymar became a global football icon, capturing the imagination of fans worldwide with his charismatic personality and marketable image.

Apart from that, Neymar’s rise to fame coincided with the social media boom. His fame was amplified by the viral nature of content sharing on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. 

Fans and followers across the globe started sharing his goals, dribbles, and memorable celebrations, turning him into a social media sensation. 

2011: Neymar’s Breakout Year

The year 2011 was a very successful one for Neymar, who enjoyed a lot of success, winning both individual and team honors. 

He finished as the top scorer for Santos, playing a crucial role in their Copa Libertadores triumph. This feat earned him recognition as the Best Young Player in the Copa Libertadores. 

Neymar’s goal-scoring exploits also extended to the Copa do Brasil, where he was among the top scorers. He was named the South American Footballer of the Year for his exceptional contributions to Santos and his impressive performances in continental competitions. 

Santos won the Campeonato Paulista and the Recopa Sudamericana, a competition contested between the winners of the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana. 

Neymar then capped off the year by winning the 2011 FIFA Puskás Award for his outstanding solo goal in a Brasileirão Série A match against Flamengo.

The hype was real. You had to be there to see 2011 Neymar.

The next destination was Europe — all roads led to Spain.

Joining Barcelona

In 2013, Neymar joined Spanish giants FC Barcelona for a then-undisclosed transfer fee. 

After a legal battle with Real Madrid, Barcelona was the destination Neymar eventually decided to join.

In Neymar’s first season at Barcelona, he played 41 matches, scoring 15 goals and providing 18 assists, which secured the La Liga title for Barcelona.

Neymar and Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, defeating Real Madrid in the final, and Barcelona also won the Supercopa de España, beating Atlético Madrid.

The 2014 World Cup

Being tagged Pele’s Protégé placed immense pressure and expectations on Neymar and created a daunting narrative that he had to navigate throughout his career.

After an impressive debut season at Barcelona, the 2014 FIFA World Cup was in sight for Neymar and his nation, Brazil. 

This was a significant tournament on both a personal and general note, as this was the edition of the World Cup to be hosted in Brazil. 

It was also the first senior tournament he was to participate in with the Brazil national team after leading the nation to a FIFA Confederations Cup triumph against Spain (a 3-0 win). 

Brazil are perennial favourites to win the FIFA World Cup based on the country’s rich footballing history and its superfluous array of talented players. 

This tournament was meant to be Neymar’s crowning—the stage was set for Pele to pass the crown to him.

And everything was going according to the script as Brazil eased to the semis to face Germany. This battle was touted to be the classic ‘flair vs. efficiency’ clash between two conflicting footballing ideologies.

Unfortunately, Neymar sustained an injury in the quarterfinal encounter between Brazil and Columbia that ruled him out of the semifinal fixture and, ultimately, the entire tournament. 

To this day, Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zúñiga is persona non grata in Brazil and Brazilian-speaking circles.

This seminal event marked the beginning of the injury crisis that befell him throughout his career. But we were too shocked to realize it then. 

The National Humiliation

Without their ace, Brazil masterminded the biggest bottle job in the history of modern football. The Germans smashed them 7-1 on home soil in front of tearful fans.

This particular result spilled unwanted paint on the canvas of Neymar’s performance at the World Cup, and it raised questions about his ability to be available when it really mattered. 


Due to the nature at which Brazil exited the tournament, it was not surprising when questions and criticism arose due to Neymar’s overall performance and match displays during the tournament. 

His antics and simulations, to an understandable extent, were a bit out of sorts, and it was not pleasant to the average football fan. 

In a cruel twist of fate, these tackles and fouls eventually led to the premature end of his World Cup campaign with a fractured vertebra.

Becoming part of MSN

Neymar went into the 2014-2015 season looking to exorcise the ghosts of the World Cup. In the summer transfer, Barcelona acquired the service of Luis Suarez. 

This move marked the birth of the magnificent trio of Messi, Suarez, and Neymar, popularly known as MSN. This coincided with Real Madrid’s trio of Bale, Benzema, and C. Ronaldo, popularly referred to as BBC. 

One of the strengths of the MSN trio was their versatility. Each player brought a unique set of skills to the table, with Messi’s creativity and vision, Suárez’s predatory instincts and physicality, and Neymar’s flair and skillful dribbling. 

MSN celebrating for Barcelona
Source: EuroSport

The MSN trio played a pivotal role in Barcelona’s historic treble-winning season in 2014-2015, securing La Liga, Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League. They continued to lead Barcelona to domestic and international success during their time together. 

Being the youngest of the trio led to speculations that he would be next in line after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were past their prime. 

This was not a forecast that was out of place as Neymar had already shown glimpses of what is expected of the World’s best player, famously playing the protagonist in Barcelona’s dramatic comeback win against Paris St Germain at the Camp Nou on March 8, 2017. 

He also won the Olympic gold medal in men’s football with Brazil during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, scoring the winning penalty against Germany in a shootout. 

This was his mini-redemption moment. This was meant to be the start of his era of dominance.

Leaving Messi’s Shadow

To become the best in the world, you have to be the best player on your team. This is canon in sports.

Neymar wanted to be the man. His case was similar to Kyrie Irving and Lebron James, who both won a Championship together for the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Although Lebron even admitted that Kyrie had what it took to be the best in the league and had already shown glimpses of being such a during the 2015-2016 NBA finals, Kyrie opted to join the Boston Celtics in 2017. 

In a similar fashion, Neymar moved to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in 2017. The transfer from Barcelona to PSG became the World’s most expensive football transfer at that time, with a reported transfer fee of €222 million. 

It was a move that sparked a lot of conversations, both positive and negative, but from a personal perspective, it was a dream move.

Becoming Mbappe’s Sidekick

Mbappe’s rise to stardom moved at a very blistering pace that matched his speed on the ball. Although Mbappe’s ‘coming out’ party was against Manchester City for Monaco, his crowing moment was scoring and winning at the 2018 World Cup final.

Walking past Mbappe at PSG
Source: Marca

At the same tournament, Neymar exited with Brazil at the quarterfinal stage after a 2-1 defeat to Eden Hazard‘s Belgium side. This loss and Neymar’s flopping antics made him the villain.

Despite being on the receiving end of horror tackles, fans and media outlets took no prisoners in voicing their displeasure with his antics and theatrics on the pitch. The internet that hyped him up in 2011 almost memed his career into obscurity. 

Fading into Obscurity at PSG

PSG bought Neymar to help them win the UEFA Champions League. They already had a stranglehold on the Ligue 1 and Coupe de France trophies.

PSG did not win the trophy during Neymar’s spell, and they were finding it challenging to progress further than the quarterfinal round in most of his campaign. 

The only time they made it to the final of the Champions League, they narrowly lost to Bayern Munich after a Kingsley Coman’s header.  

Injury at PSG
Source: EuroSport

Neymar’s time at PSG was characterized by injuries, both short and long-term, which plagued him during his spell at the French giants. As of March 2023, the Brazilian had missed 134 games in six seasons with PSG. 

Fans eventually began to turn on him for not being available enough to make an impact while receiving a mammoth paycheck during his time. 

At some point, the crowd started booing him whenever he got the ball, and at this point, it was clear the fans of the club did not appreciate his services. 

After craving independence, Neymar’s failure led him back to the one place he dreaded — under the shadow of Messi.

The latter years of Neymar’s spell in PSG did not bring the much-needed joy either. PSG also secured Lionel Messi’s signature in an attempt to create a new super-trio with Neymar and Mbappe.

At the domestic level, the trio lost out on the Ligue 1 title to a Lille team — it was underwhelming.

Failing at Multiple World Cup Tournaments

Neymar’s performance on the international stage was also similar to his time at PSG. Iw was generally impressive but an ultimate disappointment when it really mattered. 

Neymar and Brazil lost the Copa America final to Lionel Messi’s Argentina in 2021. While this was a final loss, it was the farthest a Neymar-led Brazil had gone in an international tournament.

neymar crying in Brazil shirt
Source: talkSPORT

He also agonizingly lost to Croatia in the quarterfinal of the 2022 World Cup on penalties after giving Brazil the lead in the 105th minute of extra time.

As Brazil bowed out in tears, you couldn’t help but assume that this was Neymar’s curtain call. And judging by the short shelf life of Brazilian attackers, you wouldn’t be wrong.

The Return to Barca That Never Happened

The summer of 2023 had arrived, and Neymar and his camp began searching for options for his next adventure. 

He planned a heroic — or prodigal to some fans — return to Barcelona, the club where he enjoyed astronomical success. 

Alas, the move did not materialize as several financial and legal reasons made it hard for him to return to the Camp Nou.

Huge salary requirements and unreliability kept clubs away from pursuing Neymar’s signature. 

And in an ironic twist of fate, the golden goose he chased to Paris is now the albatross keeping him away from Europe.

Neymar Leaves Europe

When the Saudis came splurging in 2023, Neymar found a new home outside of Europe in the Saudi Arabian league, Al Hilal. 

Unlike Oscar and Hulk leaving for China in their prime, this move shocked no one.

If Baba Vanga had told me that Neymar Jr., who had just won the 2011 Puskas Award, was going to be playing in Saudi Arabia at the relatively prime age of 31, I’d have laughed her out of the room.

But this is where we are; Neymar now plays in Saudi’s retirement league. And he will be in recovery for the rest of the season.

Did Neymar Fail?

This particular question has split the football world in two. He did achieve a lot throughout his time in Europe, but for someone who expected more than “a lot” of him, he did fall short in certain aspects. 

No one knows the future, but the chances of Neymar being top dog again are slim to none. He barely features in a league that is not Top-20 in the World.

 At the international level, while his services and legendary status can always be welcome, managers would be looking at more promising players like Vinicius Jr. and Rodrigo Goes. 

Despite Neymar’s peak being one of the highest in modern football and outscoring Pele for Brazil, he still fell short of expectations. 

With hindsight, it is easy to assume that moving to PSG was the wrong move. But if he hadn’t taken that leap, he would have forever been under the shadow of the indomitable Lionel Messi. 

Whether due to injuries, lack of discipline, or a combination of factors beyond his control, Neymar never lived up to our expectations of him. 

But one thing is certain: whenever the dust settles, Neymar will still be a footballing legend, his family will be set for life, and ultimately, the streets will never forget Neymar.

Who wrote this?

Ebuka is a tech enthusiast, writer, and eSports guru currently working with a team of daring Africans to revolutionize the writing scene. He enjoys answering questions, brainstorming new ideas, and discussing the future of sports and esports.

Ebuka Agbasi
Ebuka is a tech enthusiast, writer, and eSports guru currently working with a team of daring Africans to revolutionize the writing scene. He enjoys answering questions, brainstorming new ideas, and discussing the future of sports and esports.

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