Neymar, the Santos years: Remembering his best and weirdest moments in Brazil


So that's it, then. This thing is actually happening. After a transfer saga that has seemed to take place both in slow-motion and fast-forward, Neymar really does appear to be moving to Paris Saint-Germain.

This is new ground, even for modern football. £198million is a chunk of money so big that most of us can barely even begin to make sense of it. But while vague feelings of unease may linger as we enter this era of the mega-transfer, one thing at least seems fairly clear: if anyone is worth that kind of cash, it is surely Neymar.

On the surface level, there's the fact – you know this, of course – that he is just a really, really great footballer, capable of running matches single-handedly with grace and pizzazz. When Neymar is on, defenders may as well be cones strewn around a school playground. Watching him floating around the field, all sparks and rubber soul, is to remember why you love football – and at 25, there is probably more to come. 

Beyond that, there's Neymar as brand, Neymar as culture icon. Few ideas in football travel as well as that of the Brazilian craque, but even relative to that field, the forward is a gift to marketers. PSG have had star players in the past – a certain Swede comes to mind – but none on his level.

All this has been glaringly obvious during his time at the Camp Nou, but the signs were also there earlier, before he first came to Europe. As he prepares to make the second high-profile move of his career, this seems as good a time as any to look back at some of the best (and weirdest) moments from Neymar: the Santos Years...

 

1. The prodigy


Neymar had been knocking about at Santos since 2002, building up a reputation as a boy wonder thanks to his displays for the youth team. His performances at the Copinha tournament convinced senior coach Vágner Mancini that he was worthy of a chance in the first team; he made his debut, aged 17 years and 30 days, wearing the No.18 jersey, off the bench against Oeste in March 2009.

He never was one for hanging around: his first start and his first goal came just eight days later, against Mogi Mirim. The Santos jersey looked like a sail wrapped around the wiry teenager, but his quality was already obvious. 13 more goals followed before the end of the year; the fuse had been lit.

 

2. The great entertainer


It swiftly became clear that Neymar was a showman as well as a sharpshooter. His boots bore the words "joy" and "daring", and he seemed determined to ensure that his football lived up to those ideals, punctuating his displays with acts of ludicrous, circus-act skill.

These, predictably, annoyed opposition defenders every bit as much as they enchanted Peixe supporters. "I was going to break him, but I stopped myself ten times," said one defender after falling victim chapéu flick over the head. "He only does that when his team is winning." Others repeatedly accused Neymar of being a diver, but it was usually the Santos man who had the last laugh.

 

3. The media darling


From the start, Neymar seemed more than comfortable in the spotlight, be it on the pitch or away from it. It wasn't long before his image – in those days defined largely by a series of stupid manga haircuts – was peppered on billboards the country over, while he also conquered the TV world. There were weird dance routines on talk shows and cameo appearances on the Brazilian equivalent of Hollyoaks.

Mainly, though, there were adverts, the best of which by an absolute mile was for – yes really! – processed-meat giant Seara. That's Ney with Santos pals Paulo Henrique Ganso and Robinho, football-dancing to Beyoncé in an attempt to flog wafer-thin ham to the good people of Brazil. That would be a career peak for most of us.

 

4. The trouble-maker


It wasn't all plain sailing for Neymar in those early years. For a spell, he cultivated a bit of a bad-boy edge, criticising referees ("He's a thief. He'll be going home in a police van"), winding up opponents and generally being a bit of a prima donna.

A low point came in 2010, when he had a full-blown verbal with coach Dorival Júnior on the touchline after being told a team-mate would take a penalty he had won. That prompted Renê Simões, a veteran coach who was managing Santos' opponents that day, to sound a warning about Neymar's behaviour. 

"I am extremely disappointed," he said. "I've been in football since I was a boy and I've rarely seen someone so unsporting. I've worked with youngsters a lot and I've never seen anything like it. It's time for someone to educate this kid. We're creating a monster in Brazilian football."

Those fears proved to be unfounded, but Neymar has admitted that he considers that exchange the worst moment of his career.

 

5. The goalscorer


By the time he left for Catalunya, Neymar had scored a staggering 136 goals for the seasiders. A great number of them were absolute corkers, including the effort against Flamengo that won him the FIFA Puskás Award (No.2 in the video above). 

Some players are great scorers of goals. Some players are scorers of great goals. Neymar, as he has since proved time and again for Barcelona, is both. Ligue 1 defenders beware.