Neymar’s 23rd birthday finds him on the cusp of Messi and Ronaldo

Neymar must not have read the small print when he signed the contract to bring him to Spanish soccer. Dancing around opposition players can make them angry – he felt the wrath of Atlético Madrid last week for daring to be quite good against them in a cup competition Catalan newspaper Diario Sport would later brand the Copa del Ney.

Cani’s comment after the game that the Brazilian “may have a problem one day” felt vaguely like a threat. Would it be fair to clip Neymar’s ankles — or worse — because he put the ball through your legs and embarrassed you in front of your mates?

Unable to stop him that night, Juanfran resorted to winding him up, gesturing seven fingers in reference to Brazil’s defeat to Germany at the World Cup. The joke failed, however, as Neymar wasn’t even on the pitch for Brazil’s dismal loss, while Juanfran’s Spain were eliminated by the time he stepped on the field for the third game.

Something went down in the tunnel at halftime at the Vicente Calderón as well. We’ll have to wait for an autobiography of one of those involved to find out the gory details, but Sport reported there was pushing, shoving, accusations and insults. Among all that, Gabi and Diego Simeone supposedly focused their attention on Neymar, who responded with a smile, further enraging the Rojiblanco captain and manager.

All this seems to be born out of Neymar blossoming into the Neymar YouTube told us he would become. He’s weighed in with 22 goals in his 26 Barcelona appearances this season, and in the immortal words of Will Ferrell’s Mugatu in the film Zoolander, “He’s so hot right now.”

If you haven’t been quoted talking about how far Neymar can go in the game, then your stock in soccer isn’t big enough. “He is today’s Pele,” Diego Maradona opined, while Lionel Messi has claimed he is “fortunate to play alongside him.” The Brazilian Ronaldo reckons Neymar is “a talent that is enchanting the world” and even the Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo has admitted Barça’s No.11 “can become the best player in the world”.

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Some people questioned whether there would be room for him in a Messi-led side — after all, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto’o and David Villa all played in La Pulga’s shadow at one point or another — but his rise to prominence has been done hand-in-hand with the Argentine. Messi has already created eight goals for his South American buddy during the current campaign, and everything about Neymar’s second strike against Elche recently — a one-two, Messi’s scooped pass and Neymar’s side-foot volley finish — was so delicious you felt embarrassed if you weren’t drooling.

All this has been done despite the doubts over his ability, despite swapping continents and despite the continued farce surrounding his transfer — Sandro Rosell initially claimed he’d cost the club 57.1 million euros, then resigned after he was discovered to be lying. The latest evidence from the courts reveals Neymar may have cost the Blaugrana closer to 100 million euros.

The skeptics said just because he had clips on the Internet tagged “AMAZING SKILLS SHOW” didn’t mean he’d be able to cut it on a cold Sunday morning in Galicia; they said just because he was pretty and advertise-able, it didn’t mean he could withstand a crunching tackle from Diego Godín; and they said just because he’d scored a truck-load of goals for Santos and Brazil while still in diapers, it didn’t mean he’d crack Europe.

Even last summer, with the hopes of a country as big and as soccer mad as Brazil pinned on his shoulders, he still had detractors. Paul Parker (to unfortunately pick one among many) wrote on Eurosport that he still wasn’t convinced by the lad. “Neymar doesn’t live up to all the hype and publicity if you ask me,” he wrote (thankfully, nobody did ask). “He is the new kid and has all the tricks but that’s not enough to bring you all the way to World Cup glory.”

A penny for Paul’s thoughts now? The newspaper Placar’s cover recently led with “King Messi, Prince Neymar,” and while that hierarchy can’t be frowned at the moment, Neymar’s receiving increasingly more attention. The last seven front covers of Sport in January were all dedicated to Brazil’s big star, and Barça is keen to get him locked down to a new deal until 2020 as soon as they can.

He’s now firmly established as one of the contenders for world soccer’s bronze medal, but does he have the tools to kick on and fight for silver and gold with Messi and Ronaldo? Villarreal manager Marcelino Garcia Toral pointed out on Sunday night that “Neymar is great soccer player, but to get to the level of Messi and Cristiano is difficult,” and it’s hard to play devil’s advocate with that statement. The void between those two and the rest has been so big for so long.

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Neymar turns 23 today, Feb. 5 — feliz cumple, by the way — and a glance into the archive reveals soccer’s current apex predators were already pretty damn amazing by then. At the corresponding ages, Messi totalled 47 goals in 53 appearances in all competitions (2009-10), while Ronaldo was able to hit the net 42 times in his 49 outings playing for Manchester United (2007-08). Neymar’s tally so far this season, if he can continue with the same strike rate, is almost on par with those two.

There are, of course, variables. Soccer has changed a lot even in that short period of time. Neymar is acting in a secondary role in Luis Enrique’s side, while Messi and Ronaldo were already the main men at that stage in their careers. The flip side to that argument is that Neymar can rely on the creativity of Messi (and Luis Suárez).

So while it’s still too early to compare him with the guys who, at the moment, are incomparable, it does now feel like Neymar can share one of those trademark smiles — like the one Gabi and Simeone may or may not have received — with the critics who thought he was arriving in Europe as a pruned Nike doll, ready to share plenty of step-overs and hair cuts but very little substance and success.

“No one is obliged to like anyone but there is a thing called respect,” Neymar snarled after it all blew up at the Vicente Calderón last Wednesday. If his form for Barcelona continues and he can lead Brazil’s charge successfully in the Copa American this summer, it’s likely he’ll be shown plenty of respect in next year’s Ballon d’Or voting.

Camp Nou might not need a new Messi any time soon, but they may have found their new Ronaldinho.

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