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Ballon d’Or nomination the latest accolade for Neymar’s growing maturity
There’s a word, ginga, that was formed on the streets of Rio di Janeiro, in the Brazilian favelas. It was spawned as a derogatory term (more on its fascinating etymology here), but evolved into a widespread slang word in which the Brazilian community takes pride. Ginga is used to describe rhythm, swaying back and forth with flair and a hint of playfulness in Brazilian dance such as samba and capoeira.
“Concisely defined, ginga results from the articulation of syncopated dialogue between different parts of the body, especially between the hips and feet,” Ginga is defined in performing arts jargon. Yet the term was been borrowed by other parts of Brazilian culture; specifically football and the style and elegance that Brazilian football has become renowned for. The back-heels and the step-overs, or the tricks and flicks; the seal-dribble, the elastico, and a throw of the hips: skills mastered on the streets and brought to a large audience by the legendary figures such as Pele, Ronaldinho and Neymar. Just like the Ronaldo’s and the Rivaldo’s, ginga is born in Brazil.
An inherent ability for ginga is viewed as a gift helping many Brazilian footballers stand out at a young age. One of the first clips of Neymar was shot around 2005, when he was fourteen-years-old, and a local television station interviewed Santos’ promising youth product. He’s playing with a hatful of former Santos stars in a small sided game. None of them are wearing any shoes. Neymar begins to bring out the flair, scooping the ball over two players in a corner and nutmegging another. The scrawny, small kid experiments with an elastico and as he starts to bring out his hat of tricks, one of the older men gives him a playful slap in the backside, before another hacks him down.
The same year, he traveled to Spain to join Real Madrid’s youth team before returning to Santos’ academy. In his first match back, he’s brought on as a substitute and sets up an assist shortly afterwards, blowing by a defender with a cheeky step-over and slipping a teammate in on goal. At the age of seventeen, Neymar was still doing the same tricks; just in sold-out stadiums for Santos’ senior side in Brazil’s top division.
Around this time, as his confidence blossomed, he also began to grow out his hair into his trademark sloppy mohawk, which he groomed exceptionally and infrequently bleached. But Neymar expressed himself with his feet, not his hair, and with all the cut-backs, solo-goals and exceptional free-kicks he began to gain worldwide attention. After a year with Santos’ senior team, he was called up to Brazil’s senior squad in 2010, where he rapidly became the nation’s latest starlet and heir apparent to Ronaldinho, the last king of Brazilian soccer. Already, aged just twenty-three, Neymar has made sixty-nine appearances for Brazil’s national team and scored forty-six goals.
He hasn’t been the only promising young star to come out of Brazilian’s favelas in the past few years, though, and many have been flops — all tricks without any technical or tactical backbone to make it in the big leagues. Kerlon, beloved inventor of the seal dribble, comes to mind as well as Denilson and to a lesser extent, Robinho, who will never meet the sky-high expectations that were set of him in his first days at Manchester City.
When Barcelona signed Neymar three summers ago, Neymar had yet to prove (to Europeans at least) that he was more than a bag of tricks. That was his challenge, to mix the ginga in with the ruthlessly effectiveness of Barcelona’s players. Barcelona will say they never doubted his maturity as he was already the leader of Brazil; but neither was he a short-burning wonder. His growth has been phenomenal, yet a steady progression. He scored fifteen goals in all competitions in the 2013/2014 season and just a third of the way into this current campaign, he has bagged sixteen goals in seventeen appearances for Barca in all competitions — a track to better his tally of thirty-nine goals last season.
He’s not only made of goals, however. Neymar has made a number of assists for Barcelona this season and furthermore, has developed a lethal partnership with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez up front. Together, they’ve scored 125 goals in the calendar year of 2015 (with a month to spare), thirteen more than Real Madrid’s entire squad. His mentality is grounded and all things considered, he’s being groomed to take over the reigns from Messi in a few years.
The process started in September, when Messi was injured. The same day that the Argentine forward made his last appearance for almost two months, in a league win over Las Palmas, Neymar’s shed his mohawk for a down-to-earth buzz cut. While Messi was gone, Neymar stepped up to the plate to provide the goals. There was one against Sevilla on October third, and four past Rayo Vallecano the following week. Neymar made four assists over the following two games ands then went on another hot goalscoring streak.
The ginga is still there. Neymar set up Messi’s goal against Real Sociedad over the weekend in Barca’s 4-1 win after schooling a defender down the left with a shimmy of the hips and a fake, then a one-two with Suarez and cut-back for the twenty-eight-year-old. He scored a cracking volley against Villarreal; and then there was his back heel goal to set up Andres Iniesta’s strike in Barca’s 4-0 rout of Real Madrid. But he has also expanded his game to include a range of poachers’ finishes and even headed efforts that have been displayed in recent weeks.
This year he grew beyond the boundaries of a “prospect” having proven he has the backbone to succeed. Even though he likely won’t win the Ballon d’Or nomination he received today, the first given to a Brazilian since Kaka in 2007 and Ronaldinho in 2005, there’s little doubt that he will get another chance.
Photo credit: Sebastian Freire, via Flickr