At the re-christening of the Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha in Brasilia, Neymar, Brazilian football's greatest hope, wept like a baby. He struggled with the decision to move away from Santos FC, a club that he loves in a way that most professional athletes don't love their teams, but he knew he had to make that call. It was a moment he should have shared with the fans of Santos, but he couldn't.
Brasilia is a place that bureaucrats decided to make up in the 1950s, so there are no first (or second) division teams in the area and the only iconic footballer born in the general vicinity of the city is Kaka, who was born in Gama in 1982. Santos FC and Flamengo, who opened the stadium with their opening round Brasileirão game, are not from anywhere near Brazil's Federal District, which is, once again, about as made up of a place as a place can be. If Brazil didn't have a man known as "the joy of the people", the stadium that Santos and Flamengo played in would probably be called simply "Estadio Nacional" or have a corporate sponsor. Brasilia as the capital of Brazil is still something that Brazil is trying to make happen, even though a few billion people probably assume that the capital of Brazil is Rio de Janeiro.
Juxtaposed against this entirely contrived event was Neymar's showing of genuine emotion. Neymar loves Santos, its fans and his family in Brazil. He didn't want to leave any of that, but he has to move on to better his career. Regardless of what his career goals are and whatever he deems to be important in football, he's not going to achieve everything he wants to achieve by staying at Santos.
Neymar played his final game for Santos on Sunday. The Brazilian superstar agreed to sign for FC Barcelona on Saturday night, and will join the Catalan giants following the Confederations Cup. He will presumably play to the left of Lionel Messi for the better part of the next decade.
Before the 2010 World Cup, Brazil manager Dunga was berated by the Brazilian press for leaving Neymar, then an 18-year-old budding phenom, off his squad. On the BBC's World Football Phone-In, Tim Vickery paraphrased the ridiculous scene at a press conference following the squad announcement. One journalist, blurring the line between reporters and fans more than any blog ever has, told Dunga that he would go down in history like Argentina's Cesar Luis Menotti, who cut 17-year-old phenom Diego Maradona from his 1978 World Cup squad. Dunga, stunned, replied, "...but Argentina won that tournament."
Dunga didn't guide Brazil to a World Cup win. His side was undone in the quarterfinals by the sending off of reckless defensive midfielder Felipe Melo, exactly the type of player that the Brazilian fans and press looked down on him for selecting. He was dismissed in July of 2010, and since then, Neymar has been an automatic first choice player for Brazil.
However, his game has stalled. That's not exactly an insult for someone who is widely considered one of the best attacking players in the world without ever playing in Europe -- he has 20 goals in 32 appearances for Brazil at the age of 21, after all -- but he has the potential to be more than he is right now. He isn't going to get much better playing for Santos, and with Brazil hosting the upcoming World Cup, there's a reason for him to be in a rush to play at the highest level and improve. Failing to win Olympic gold with a star-studded supporting cast was embarrassing enough for Neymar and Brazil, but failure in the next World Cup would be a disaster.
Anyone who tuned in to watch Neymar play for Santos for the first time on Sunday probably came away from the game wondering what all the hype is about. He didn't have much of an impact on the game -- a rather uneventful 0-0 draw -- and was upstaged by Flamengo's new signing Gabriel, a very solid but ultimately unremarkable player who won't do a lot of stealing the show from top players in his career. He didn't get on the ball very often, and when he did, he struggled to find teammates to combine with. Sadly, this has become the norm when Santos comes up against high-level competition.
Neymar was the face of the Santos team that won the 2011 Copa Libertadores, but he was hardly the only star. Since that victory, a team that looked good enough to keep Neymar around for a while and potentially change Brazilian club football has been slowly dismantled. Most of the players who made the Santos 18-man squad for those two legs against Peñarol are now gone. Elano, Adriano and Pará have all moved to Gremio. Alex Sandro and Danilo went to FC Porto, where they have become stars. Jonathan joined Inter Milan. Zé Eduardo was sold to Genoa and Alan Patrick was sold to Shakhtar Donetsk.
Most notably, Paulo Henrique Ganso moved on to São Paulo. With injuries limiting his appearances for the third straight season, Santos decided to cash in and sell their hyper-talented, but ultimately disappointing playmaker in 2012. Ganso was not only Neymar's partner in crime and the perfect complement to his style, but also one of his best friends.
Walter Montillo was brought to the club in January, but it wouldn't be surprising if Neymar had decided to move on from Santos before his arrival. Santos and Neymar once maintained that he would stay with the club until the 2014 World Cup, at which point he would depart for Europe, but Santos' decline was always likely to accelerate his plans. It's easy to stick around when Brasileirão and Libertadores titles are in sight, but Santos are nowhere near either at the moment. His chances to win either before the World Cup are nonexistent.
There's also the matter of money, which Neymar may or may not care about. He rejected a more lucrative offer from Real Madrid to sign for Barcelona, suggesting that it isn't his primary concern, but it's rare that professional athletes aren't motivated by money to some degree. He's still going to make somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four times his current wages at Barcelona. Santos is a club of limited means compared to Europe's giants, and there's only so much they could pay him while fielding a competitive team.
It was time for Neymar to go, no matter his reasons for leaving Santos. No one knows if his primary motivation for moving to Barcelona is a desire to prepare himself for the World Cup, or test himself against the best players in the world, or play alongside Lionel Messi, or win trophies, or some combination of all of these things. But no matter what he's after, he wasn't going to accomplish any of those things at Santos. There's not much of an argument to be made for staying at Santos being a good career move.
Here's one of the only arguments for him staying, and it's a stupid one: Neymar will enter the next World Cup as Messi's right-hand man, not as the mythological figure that 'might be better than Messi, except we just don't know yet'. To those who haven't followed the game between World Cups, he could have been the guy who came out of nowhere to become a global icon in seven weeks, and that would have been really cool. It also would have made him a lot of money.
But if he was going to be that, it always was going to be because the Brazil team was designed perfectly around him while Argentina's team was a complete disaster that would have stunk with or without Messi. These things, if they're going to happen, would have happened whether or not Neymar joined Barcelona. The only difference is that everyone will know it's because Brazil is better than Argentina, not because Neymar is better than Messi, if Brazil goes farther than Argentina at the World Cup.
When the best argument for an athlete staying put is that he should protect himself and the public from reality, it's probably time for that athlete to take his talents somewhere new. In the case of Neymar, it's time for him to play for one of the biggest teams in the world, with the best players in the world and against the best players in the world.
The football world has awaited this day since 2010. A year from now, we'll finally know what Neymar's really made of.