Neymar can challenge for next year’s European Footballer of the Year

Barcelona – FC Barcelona forward Neymar has won the prestigious Samba Gold accolade, awarded to the best Brazilian player in European football.

Barcelona – FC Barcelona forward Neymar has won the prestigious Samba Gold accolade, awarded to the best Brazilian player in European football.

The 22-year-old received the majority of the votes from the judging panel, made up of 11 former Brazilian players and 11 journalists, reports Friday.

Reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid’s Joao Miranda and English club Chelsea’s Willian were Neymar’s nearest challengers.

Former Brazil skipper and French side Paris Saint Germain (PSG) defender Thiago Silva had won the award for the previous three seasons, but he didn’t figure in the top three this time.

As we knows,the World Cup semifinal in the last summer would probably have given Neymar some more weight in the voting process for FIFA’s gala award.

As it is, Brazil’s best player over the past five years was selected by just six voters; apart from his national team manager Dunga, only the head coaches of the Bahamas, Brunei and Samoa, as well as the Samoan captain and a journalist from Madagascar, thought he performed better than Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Manuel Neuer in 2014. The irony here is that last January, 11 voters had given Neymar their first preference. And he could not be a more different player from that one a year ago.

At time of writing, Neymar seems to have finally blossomed at Barcelona. His 17 goals in 21 games this season might seem pedestrian compared to the likes of Ronaldo (33 in 29) and Messi (26 in 26) but this scoring rate far eclipses in half a season what the Brazilian managed in a full one at the Camp Nou: in 2013-14, his maiden campaign in Spain and Europe, Neymar hit just 15 in 41 for the Blaugrana.

Neymar’s quiet maturity has helped him settle and become a key figure for Barcelona this season.

But it’s another parameter that draws more attention: after registering 15 assists in 2013-14, the Brazilian has just three so far for Barca this season. While one could easily point to the arrival of Luis Suarez as a factor, Messi’s new, less full-throttle role also explains the flux. That and the fact that Neymar couldn’t look more different to the reserved, almost Zen-like figure that arrived in Catalonia.

Not that it was a mistake to begin life at Barca that way. Far from it, in fact; Neymar was basically parachuted into a group of players who not only had seen a lot of combat together, but who were also wise enough to accept that Barcelona had a show run by the quiet Argentina. No matter the aplomb surrounding his signing, it looked pretty clear the Brazilian would have to dance to the beat of the tango instead of the samba.

Especially when it is considered that Messi is to strike partners what Henry VIII was to wives: since Leo’s 2008 coronation in Barcelona came with the departure of Ronaldinho, no other “wingman” has successfully managed to see out his contract with the club, a list of players that includes Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa.

So it wasn’t simply media training that guided Neymar to say things like “I am here to help Messi keep on being the best in the world,” or “I am still pinching myself to be playing alongside Xavi Hernandez,” the same player who in a news conference in 2013 “welcomed” Neymar with veiled concerns about him being a team player. It was self-preservation.

His spirited and seemingly happy relationship with Lionel Messi also shows Neymar’s progress this season.

Yet a lot has indeed changed at the Camp Nou since Neymar arrived. Barca doesn’t look nearly as good as they were in 2011, the year they toyed with Manchester United at Wembley to win the Champions League for the third time in six seasons. They haven’t been to the final since then and last season’s capitulation against Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals must have stung. They are having to deal with Xavi’s imminent goodbye, Andres Iniesta’s pedestrian season and the fact Messi, 28 in May, isn’t getting any younger, either.

This opens up a huge chance for Neymar. Double-edged as it is, since there are some big shoes to be filled, this season has offered him a chance to be more assertive on the pitch than ever. It definitely helps that Gerardo Martino has been replaced by Luis Enrique who, despite all his woes at the job has not misused Neymar so far.

It all adds up to a happier player. “Barcelona are still fighting on all trophy fronts and I am enjoying my season,” Neymar said in an interview with Globoesporte in December. “I am always trying to improve and I can’t even relax because my father is even more demanding than I am. But I feel quite comfortable to do my job.”

Neither can it be bad that Neymar’s form for Brazil has been splendid as well. Since his post-World Cup return, he has netted seven goals in six games. While his mettle has never been in dispute, the 22-year-old oozes confidence these days and as annoying as his public deference to Messi can sometimes seem, both players know the dynamics have changed a bit. Barcelona are still Messi’s team and will probably be until the man from Rosario retires or goes elsewhere, but they also need Neymar to be in this kind of form more than ever before.

In football, 12 months can feel like light years, but it’s tempting to think that at this rate Neymar could entertain the prospect of breaking into the top three in next year’s FIFA extravaganza. Given the Selecao’s 2014 and that it has been eight years since Ricky Kaka became last Brazilian to go that far in the Ballon d’Or, a podium finish would, as another pearl of philosophy from the Brazilian streets dictates, give fans beans and allow them to burp beluga caviar.

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