The last time Santos reached the Copa Libertadores final, they had a teenager called Neymar who was expected to take the football world by storm
There may not have been any banners bearing a missive akin to Galatasaray’s infamous ‘Welcome to Hell’ greeting when Neymar visited the Estadio Centenario, but the message was nevertheless clear enough for visiting Santos.
Nine-tenths of Montevideo’s iconic national stadium was packed to the rafters with Penarol fans, who ignited the vicinity with hundreds of fireworks and flares as the two teams entered the arena.
“And give me joy, give me joy in my heart,” rose the deafening cry from the 70,000-strong home faithful, dwarfing the handful of Santos supporters penned into a lonesome corner of the ground. “The Copa Libertadores is my obsession. You have to give your hearts and souls, you have to give everything for Penarol.”
The 2011 Libertadores marked the Uruguayans’ first appearance in the tournament’s final since 1987, their fifth and last such title. For the visitors, though, the wait had been far longer. While the team led by Ricardo Oliveira had finished on the losing side to Boca Juniors in 2003, not since 1963, the golden age of Pele’s wonderful team, had they won the Copa outright.
Muricy Ramalho’s team geared up for what would undoubtedly prove a tough tie with one big advantage: the presence of Neymar, Brazilian football’s new poster boy who, at 19, was already touted as a future star of the world game.
“They talk about Messi and Maradona but Brazil has Neymar, who is going to be a great,” Pele promised in 2011. Ex-Barcelona and Madrid star Ronaldo agreed, telling Folha: “He can become the best in the world if he leaves Brazil.”
Even at that age, the budding forward was embracing the pressure, telling the press before the first leg: “We are ready to make history like Pele did. I hope we can take this victory for Brazil.”
Penarol coach Diego Aguirre, meanwhile, had his own plans to stop the teenage sensation, telling reporters: “I was thinking about putting a sniper up in the Olimpica stand.”
It took just 18 minutes for Neymar’s tempers to fray, picking up a yellow card for a blatant dive having already been singled out for rough treatment several times.
That was the first of five bookings shown by referee Carlos Amarilla during a tetchy, ill-tempered match that produced a total of 35 fouls and zero goals to leave the return match wide open.
This writer witnessed the game from the Centenario stands, but was not wholly convinced with Neymar’s display. “The teenage prodigy had another one of those games which make him such an infuriating figure to watch.
“Moments of electrifying skill are interspersed with childish acts of gamesmanship, and he is still far too happy to throw himself to the ground.”
However, in the second leg, Neymar opened the scoring in Sao Paulo’s Estadio Pacaembu with a vicious shot to Sosa’s right-hand side at the beginning of the second half, for his sixth goal of the campaign; and from there, Santos never looked like losing.
Danilo made the game safe with his own strike 20 minutes later and, while Penarol hit back hard first through Durval’s own goal to make it 2-1 and later by sparking an all-out brawl at full-time, the Manya were powerless to stop the Libertadores returning to Vila Belmiro for the first time in almost half a century.
“If you compare them individually, Neymar is better than Messi,” Pele went on to say at the end of 2011.”
While that praise may have seemed premature, Santos’ new star, who went on to meet Barcelona for the first time in December’s Club World Cup final, looked on track to become one of the world’s best, the natural heir to the Argentine and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ten years down the line, Santos gear up this weekend for their first Libertadores final since beating Penarol and hopes are high around the historic Brazilian club.
They may lack the star power enjoyed back in 2011 – as well as Neymar, current Juventus full-backs Danilo and Alex Sandro, ex-Brazil midfielder Elano and the wonderfully enigmatic playmaker Ganso all formed part of Ramalho’s squad – but with teenage sensation Kaio Jorge, Venezuela’s diminutive genius Yeferson Soteldo and journeyman striker Marinho all coming to the fore in this campaign, Cuca’s charges will fancy their chances of taking down Palmeiras and winning their fourth Copa.
As for their former star, the jury is still out on whether he has reached the dazzling heights predicted of him back at Vila Belmiro a decade ago.
Objectively, it is hard to argue that Neymar’s career to date has been anything other than a glittering success. Two years after the Copa win – the biggest of the six titles he lifted at Santos – he moved to Barcelona in a transfer that has gone down in history as one of the messiest and most acrimonious in football history.
The Catalans claimed they signed the Brazil star from Santos for €17 million (£15m/$21m), but the total cost eventually came to around €83m (£73m/$100m), with Barca making payments to the player’s private company and directly to his father.
Only last year were Barcelona finally cleared of fraud by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) who dismissed a mammoth lawsuit from Santos demanding the payment of €61m (£54m/$74m) they believe they were entitled to as part of the deal.
Since his arrival in Europe he has helped himself to 186 goals and 17 major trophies, as well as joining becoming the most expensive player in the world with his 2017 move to Paris Saint-Germain.
In international colours, he is already, at just 28, closing in on Pele’s goal-scoring record, needing just 13 to level the Selecao legend. But the raw numbers do not quite tell the full story.
Neymar is still waiting for his first Champions League with PSG. The World Cup has remained out of reach, too, while he was forced to watch from the sidelines as his team-mates lifted the 2019 Copa America after failing on three occasions to lift that trophy himself.
As Messi and Ronaldo’s stranglehold on the Ballon d’Or has waned, that prestigious award also remains out of his grasp. With his 29th birthday approaching at the start of February, Neymar must hear the clock ticking as he seeks to make his definitive mark on football history.
This certainly was not part of the plan when he joined PSG for €222m (£196m/$269m), a move motivated in part by the need to step out of Messi’s shadow at Camp Nou.
The immense sum, which in this post-Covid era looks set to stand unchallenged for many years, was a statement of intent from the French side, who had suffered Neymar’s talents that same year in a brutal 6-1 thrashing at Barca’s hands in the Champions League.
While PSG have continued to rack up the domestic honours with Neymar in the side, and proved to have a spending power beyond the likes of Barca, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the playmaker has not enjoyed the same kind of adulation he would have expected having left Messi’s side.
“Neymar understood Messi still was deservedly the main man and it was going to be that way for a long time,” explains Goal’s Barcelona correspondent, Ignasi Oliva.
“While having a great relationship with Messi, Neymar knew that as long as Messi remained at Camp Nou, he never would be Barcelona’s biggest star, so he decided to find a place where he could feel like the team’s No.1.
“He is the biggest star in history [at PSG] but has lost a lot of global projection, the kind you have when you play for Real Madrid, Barca or Manchester United. Only a few clubs in the world can provide this platform and PSG are not one of them.
“It’s telling that Neymar hasn’t made the Ballon d’Or top three once since he left Barcelona.”
If he has fallen short since his arrival at Parc des Princes, it must be stated that the attacker is not wholly to blame.
PSG appeared strong candidates to take the Champions League title in both 2018 and 2019, but were robbed of their superstar. Neymar suffered three metatarsal breaks in 18 months, two of which ruled him out of almost the entirety of his side’s knockout campaigns, and his presence was sorely missed.
According to Goal’s PSG correspondent Benjamin Quarez, Neymar’s hopes of conquering the football world have been held back by misfortune as much as Messi and Ronaldo.
“Firstly, both Messi and Ronaldo are aliens,” Quarez argues. “In my opinion, it’s important to remember this. Messi and Ronaldo are perhaps the best players in football history. It’s not breaking news, it’s reality. Right now, Neymar is still far behind both.
“He must win the Champions League again, of course, and the Ballon d’Or. But it’s a very, very, very big challenge to compete with Messi and Ronaldo, even at their ages.
“But we must also remember that, since his arrival, Neymar has had two big injuries. The only season he was not injured, last season, PSG made it to the Champions League final to face Bayern Munich in Lisbon.
“So, we can see that he is their magician, their key player. He still has the ability to lead them to a first European Cup. And they know that.
“A year ago, he asked to leave PSG. All the fans were against him, but Neymar managed to turn public opinion around. Today, if you ask them, ‘Would you like to keep Neymar or Kylian Mbappe?’, the majority of fans will say Neymar.”
Bad luck has also haunted him with the national team, most notably in the 2014 World Cup on home soil when a freak spinal injury in the last eight against Colombia forced him to miss out on the now-infamous 7-1 semi-final loss to Germany.
Four years later, he entered the finals in far from optimal state due to further physical problems and stood out more for his play-acting than his exploits with the ball at his feet.
Neymar’s attitude, be it on the pitch or off it, has long come under scrutiny, since his very first days at Santos. Whether he is holding lavish parties or engaging in petulant behaviour with opponents, team-mates, match officials and coaches alike, that alleged Peter Pan-esque refusal to mature has long been held against him.
The Brazilian’s soirees are already the stuff of legend in Paris. “Nothing but birthday parties – incredible!” ex-team-mate Thomas Meunier said shortly after leaving the club.
“When I was at Bruges, we’d celebrate birthdays by playing darts or pool in a bar, but here it’s just outrageous. But that just reflects the club: hire a palace, hire a building, parties with hundreds of people.”
“It’s clear that Neymar could have done some things differently,” Quarez adds. “But I repeat, he had two big injuries and his adventure in Paris isn’t over. If he wins the Champions League with Paris this season, for example, he will be a legend here.”
Neymar has paid close attention to his boyhood club’s progress throughout this Libertadores, which concludes on Saturday with the final against Palmeiras in Rio de Janeiro’s Estadio Maracana.
Santos, and particularly the brilliant Soteldo, received lavish praise following their 3-0 semi-final thrashing of Boca in a video posted on Instagram by the PSG star, who also found time to tease team-mate and ex-Boxa man Leandro Paredes.
The 2011 tournament proved a launching pad for the prodigy and many of his team-mates, who have gone on to enjoy sparkling careers following that night of joy in the Pacaembu. For Neymar, though, the job is not quite finished.
Perhaps something inside Neymar first needs to change. “I always had the feeling Neymar wasn’t completely focused on football,” says Oliva. “He knows he has a unique and pure talent, and this means he is often found wanting in terms of his preparation,” he explains.
“Messi and Ronaldo reached incredible levels because of their talent and hard work, but also because they have always been 100 per cent focused on football, and my feeling is Neymar is not as focused as these two legends.”
Can he, or indeed any player in the modern age, match the outrageous new standards for brilliance set by Messi and Ronaldo over the last decade? The pair have taken football to a new level with their talents and records, many of which are unlikely to ever be challenged.
Neymar for his part has one advantage, entering what should be his prime at a point where his two rivals are both nearing the age where most footballers begin to decline.
There is a clear road-map in front of him as to what he must achieve to secure his legacy, and none of the objectives – a Champions League victory with PSG, World Cup glory leading Brazil, one or multiple Ballons d’Or – appear unobtainable for a player of his undoubted quality.
It is up to Neymar to make those dreams happen, though, and ensure that those early predictions of becoming the world’s greatest do not go unfulfilled.