When it comes to pure spectacle most people seem to have preferred the old pre-facelift model José Mourinho. Albeit it has been a few years since we saw that cheerfully acerbic entertainer, back in the days when Mourinho could be bothered to smile, play to the gallery, spook an opponent with his bastardish charm and generally floss, brush, pomade and change out of his pyjamas.
Personally, I quite like the new version. Gloomy José, the shell-suited grinch, has his own appeal. Mourinho may be a more grizzled figure these days, resembling in his public appearances a man being held captive in a nuclear bunker and occasionally forced by his captors to appear unshaven before the cameras in a sweat-stinking tracksuit, blinking into the lights, and making a series of caustic, veiled remarks in front of a board covered in adverts. But his pronouncements are often just as funny, in a downbeat way; and when he’s not in agenda-driven-nonsense mode, just as astute.
With this in mind Mourinho was surely right when he described the week’s most exciting transfer rumour, the notion Neymar might be lured to Manchester United, as “absurd”, “impossible” and “like trying to break into a safe”. Sadly for the Premier League, this must surely be the case. It seems almost inconceivable Neymar – who loves Barcelona – would leave Barcelona now. It also seems deeply unlikely the world’s next-best best player, still hopeful of making that generational leap up as soon as Those Other Two have shuffled off, would leave Barça for a team that for all their grandeur, have spent this season outside the Champions League.
All of which is in itself a bit of a shame. Not just for English football, which would eat Neymar up, in the best possible sense. But also arguably for Neymar himself, who is at a genuinely interesting point in his own career, smoking and juddering on the launchpad before his own planned ascent into the clouds. He perhaps needs just a little headroom now, something other than the role of Lionel Messi’s high-end support act, if he really is to explore and push back the far limits of his own talent.
Two things seem clear. First, Neymar is at his best when he simply grasps the game in front of him and plays like he’s the only superstar on the pitch, as he has for Brazil and in some of his best moments for Barcelona. And secondly, that he is only going to find his own jumping-off point, his fiefdom, a football world to bend to his own shape, if he does. For that to happen at some stage he must stop being nice and deferential, a wonderful “waiter” as they say in Brazil – with a class-leading eight assists so far in the Champions League this season – and escape from Lionel Messi’s shadow.
There is, of course, no shame in playing second fiddle to history’s own first fiddle, a player who must even if you hate hyperbole and remember Diego Maradona fondly be acknowledged as the most consistently brilliant club footballer ever. The problem for Neymar is that Messi is going to be brilliant for a few years yet, and most likely in the same place. His game is too good, too firmly based on touch and skill rather than physicality to fade obligingly to the wings.
Does any of this really matter? There is an element of artificially heightened expectation here. We have been a little spoilt in the last decade, able to gawp over at least two all-time attacking talents simultaneously. If this kind of endlessly prolific scoring and assisting really is the pattern now at the global super clubs, not everyone is convinced Neymar really is an heir, the world’s greatest sub-genius in waiting.
Brazilians aren’t fashionable generally these days. That terribly brittle and needy home World Cup didn’t help. The tearful press conferences, the news-helicopter shots of the crocked Neymar being airlifted on his gurney, shrouded in baseball cap and shades: it was all oddly hysterical. In many ways Neymar is similar to Virat Kohli in cricket, a beautifully engaging talent under vast pressure from a huge, nationalistic population to be not just very good but the best in the world and hurry up with it.
But that World Cup also made quite a few converts. In the flesh Neymar is simply beautiful to watch, a wonderfully seductive mover who seems to skate across the turf without leaving an imprint, a Disney prince made out of blossom and icing sugar and dandelion spurs.
His superpower is to move the ball with wonderful precision and blurring speed, that swerving dribbling style a function of endlessly spooling calculations, an ability to writhe through the tiniest gap, all fine-point craft and perfection in miniature.
Against Paraguay this week he scored a goal that involved running from his own half, hurdling two opponents, swerving inside and tickling a deflected shot past the keeper, a 60-yard sprint that seemed to take nothing out of him at all, barely touching the grass, the ball, the players around him.
The goal was Neymar’s 52nd in 77 internationals and 25th in his last 31, a career ratio beaten only by Romario and Gabriel Batistuta among the 50-goal heavy-hitters of the modern age. Neymar needs a new story of his own. Who knows, maybe it could come here, as captain and leader of the No1 ranked team in the world, first nation to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.
The Hexa, a sixth World Cup title, is the national obsession. Under the current coach, Tite, Brazil have looked a balanced, mobile, less-brittle team, not to mention a group of players outranked only by Russia itself when it comes to experience playing in that part of the world. In Neymar they also have the best international footballer in the world right now, a year out from an open-looking tournament. So much for predictions.
Mourinho is at least right on one score. Neymar surely won’t leave Barcelona while he’s hovering so close to the throne. Succession is rarely as simple as it looks. The tides shift constantly. But it will be fascinating to see how this compelling little sprite of a footballer finds room to grow and assert his will, a mere superstar in the presence of greatness. But a player who also perhaps needs a little more space in his prime, who shows his best qualities in those moments when he simply loses himself and leads.