Neymar is at the peak of his powers to lead Brazil to World Cup gloryhttp://www.espn.com/soccer/fifa-world-c ... t-to-shine
It was supposed to be Neymar's time four years ago at Brazil's World Cup. The golden boy of Brazilian football, then 22, was having to cope with the unimaginable pressure that comes with such expectations. Neymar was their biggest hope. Their only hope, really.
This was a boy king surrounded by pretenders, not so much the focal point of a team as its only real point. If they were to win on home soil and purge the memories of 1950 -- the Maracanazo and all that -- Fred or Bernard or Oscar weren't going to do it: Neymar had to drag them there.
None of what eventually happened was his fault: he just happened to be an extraordinarily precocious talent in a rare fallow period for Brazilian football, and then he got injured. Who knows whether he could have made a difference against Germany in the semifinals -- it would at least have prevented the absurd pseudo-funeral of his teammates carrying his shirt before that incredible 7-1 hammering. But it was unrealistic, cruel even, to expect him to be that decisive. He wasn't ready, even before Juan Zuniga's knee displaced his vertebrae.
He's ready now, though. Or, to be more precise, history suggests that now is the right time for him to be ready.
Neymar turned 26 in February. He's entering what is traditionally regarded as an athlete's peak years, when they are in prime physical condition but have enough nous and experience to know what's what and how to succeed.
And in terms of the World Cup at least, that isn't just a truism. Historically speaking, the best individual performances have come from players of around the same age as Neymar is now.
Diego Maradona was 26 in 1986, having flamed out four years earlier in a cloud of red cards and disappointment. Salvatore Schillaci was 25 in 1990, coming from nowhere to win the Golden Boot. When he did the same in 1982, Paolo Rossi was 26. When Roberto Baggio nearly won the whole thing on his own in 1994, he was 27.
Ronaldo's great comeback in 2002 came when he was 25. Zinedine Zidane was 26 when he scored twice in the 1998 final. Andreas Iniesta was 26 in 2010. Thomas Muller already has 10 World Cup goals and he's 28 now, so lord knows what he might do in Russia. Davor Suker is the only player older than 28 to win the Golden Boot -- when he did so in 1998 -- since six players shared it in 1962.
There are many other examples. There are outliers (2006 was broadly dominated by experienced players, for example), but the general rule is that World Cup excellence comes between the ages of around 25 and 28.
Neymar may take inspiration from a few of those mentioned, not least Ronaldo and Maradona, who both went to their first World Cups as prodigies, youngsters expected to thrill the planet. It ultimately ended in disappointment, but they went on to do their best work four years later.
Perhaps the closest comparison is Baggio. In 1990, when his country hosted the tournament, Baggio was 23, Italy's glowing talent, a youngster the nation looked to for inspiration. He wasn't ready: he provided a few glorious moments and Italy went out in the semifinals, albeit in far less traumatic circumstances than Brazil. Four years later he was a sensation, the player Italy wanted him to be.
Neymar is in this sweet spot, at the age where traditionally the best individual players in the world have shone on what is still football's biggest stage.
This, by the way, is not to suggest that 30-somethings Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo cannot dominate this World Cup. They are aliens, otherworldly talents who many have been expecting to slow down for a few years now, but they stubbornly refuse to. If they wish to buck the trend and show their genius during their theoretical dotage, they will do it.
Football does not follow predictable models, and each of the players mentioned here will have had different circumstances to Neymar. We don't know how he will react to basically not playing competitive football since February: will he be well-rested or rusty? We don't know how he will react to a season in a basically uncompetitive Ligue 1. We don't know exactly how good this Brazil team is.
But he's certainly more likely to shine now than four years ago. "He's ready," said Ronaldo about his countryman this week. "Football is great because you always have another opportunity to change history."
Neymar's opportunity starts against Switzerland on Sunday 2pm