I’ve watched Neymar play football for some time now, way before his big move to Barcelona. I first heard about him when somebody told me about a flappy haired kid who played for Santos and was making waves in Brazilian football. So sure I watched him and of course I was impressed with his trickery and ability to score wonderful goals. One of my favourite games of all time was Neymar and Santos’ 5-4 loss to a Ronaldinho inspired Flamengo, with Ronnie himself scoring a hat-trick on the day. That was the game I realised that perhaps Neymar had more substance to his game, and possessed the ability to carry a team on his shoulders.
I would still put Neymar behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But at this World Cup he has not only surprised me with how well he’s played, he has absorbed the pressure of expectancy in Brazil and lead his team to a World Cup quarter-final. Against Chile in the round of sixteen, the guy was kicked around the pitch, and although he tired as the game wore on, he was a constant threat. Whether Brazil win the World Cup or not, he has truly arrived as a player, and is now so much more than the showboating kid I first watched years ago. Strangely enough however, his biggest test yet may be about to come against a player who was largely unknown to the casual fan before this tournament began.
James Rodriquez has been arguably the player of the tournament so far. His two goals against Uruguay not only sending his team to a World Cup quarter-final, but making him the top scorer in the tournament at this point too. Plying his trade in Monaco, it was hard to gauge from there just how good he was coming into the tournament. There was a reason Monaco shelled out €45 million for his services from Porto however, and watching him in France it’s clear he’s one of the best players in what is admittedly a league on a rung below the likes of England, Italy, Spain and Germany.
His nine goals in thirty-four appearances for the French outfit last season was a really decent return, and playing for Columbia their style of play fits his game even more. Yes his club and country miss Radamel Falcao, but James has taken the opportunity to make people forget about their star player with both hands. Monaco are under no financial pressure to sell this guy, but you can bet they will be inundated with offers once the tournament is over. The guy is box office stuff.
All of this leads to a pivotal quarter-final between Brazil and Columbia. On one side you have Neymar, the guy who is supposed to be the savior of a country and the best player at the tournament. On the other you have James and Columbia, the confident underdogs with the actual player of the tournament so far in their ranks. The term underdog is used loosely here, those who watched Columbia in qualification know they have such a strong identity and belief in what they do, that they consider themselves capable of beating anybody. Looking over both team’s performances they have been better than Brazil since the tournament began too.
No matter what happens, we will lose one of these players after the game, and that is a shame. It is somewhat ironic though, that it is not a Messi or a Ronaldo standing in the way of Neymar’s supposed destiny, at least not yet anyway. It is the kid from Columbia, who is unfazed by the big moments and has thrived at the tournament. Every game Neymar has played in so far, he has stolen the show. That will surely change once these two teams take to the pitch. It is the heavyweight clash few saw coming, but that we all can’t wait to witness.
Should Neymar fail at this hurdle, a real possibility here, yes the country will go into mourning. But for me, he has nothing left to prove. This is one of the most workmanlike and uninspiring Brazil teams of all time, but Neymar has led from the front admirably, something I was unsure he was capable of. He is the real leader of this team, and his well taken penalty against Chile show he has the balls to match the skill. There is nothing more dangerous than playing a team with nothing to lose, and Columbia are in the rare position in that they might be the better team, but because Brazil are at home they are still the favorites. That is a dangerous mix to deal with.
For James though, helping his team reach a World Cup semi-final would be the stuff of legend. He would be one of the most sought after players in the world, and you’d have to think getting out of Monaco to play in a better league would be a must for him. No matter what though, enjoy this game. Occasions like this don’t come around too often.