From boys to heroes

From boys to heroes

Zaha and Neymar will be stepping out of their comfort zones, hoping to redefine their young careers

From boys to heroes

Neymar da Silva, 21, leaves his boyhood team, Santos, to play alongside Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Wilfried Zaha, not yet 21, helps his boyhood club, Crystal Palace, reach England’s Premier League, and he then leaves to play for Manchester United.

They live and were raised a world apart. But in what other walk of life would young men be traded before they reach their potential for sums that might secure the survival of the clubs that discovered and nurtured them as children?

Neymar, already the richest young athlete in Brazil because of his endorsement deals, sobbed when he played his final game for Santos last Sunday.

Zaha, who was born in Ivory Coast but moved to South London when he was 4, played like a man inspired during his final appearance as a Palace player last Monday. His move to Manchester United was sealed four months ago, but United loaned him back to Crystal Palace for the remainder of this season.

There is as much of Crystal Palace in young Wilfried as there will always be Santos inside Neymar. These are the clubs that spotted their potential. They grew up there, were formed there, and it is not at all too strong to suggest that they were loved like family on the training grounds of Crystal Palace and Santos.

Neymar was, perhaps, predestined to be a soccer player. His gets his genes from his father, Neymar Sr., a former player, and was inducted into Pele’s old club, Santos, back in 2003, when he was just 11.

“I’ve been here nearly all my life,” the young superstar said. “Every child has a dream – to be a player, a dentist, maybe a reporter. Mine was to be a professional athlete, and today Barcelona is fulfilling my dream. I am going to a totally beautiful dream.”

Which of us knows how that might turn out? Neymar’s skills are so totally transparent in Brazil, but now he moves onto the stage of Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and a whole school of world-acclaimed players who grew up together at Barca.

In terms of ability, Neymar could be on their level. But he must adapt and he must know when, where and how to share the ball. And he must learn how to move without the ball, which is also intrinsic to the Barcelona rhythm.

In short, the Brazilian who has set his own tempo and basked in his own acclaim without leaving his home field now has to adapt his game. Great players, they say, can play anywhere; Neymar needs to, and not simply for his own sake. The World Cup takes place in Brazil one year from now, and either he returns a better player or as a confused one.
Zaha has already made one great adaptation. He arrived with his family to make a new life in a largely immigrant community south of London, and the tenacity that is required to make something of yourself in that environment has already been evident in the way he plays.

Another thing was evident, too: the gratitude that the 20-year-old Zaha has shown these past two weeks to Palace. He could have rested on his laurels, knowing that his deal was already done with Manchester United and that next season, he would be on England’s biggest stage.

But no, Zaha wanted “his” team, Crystal Palace, to get promoted into the big league before he left.

The team entered the promotion playoffs weakened after an injury to its principal striker, Glenn Murray. Zaha came in off his wing to score twice against Brighton as Palace won the right to play at Wembley for the final spot in the Premier League next season.

Zaha did not score on Sunday, but he was the class player on the field. He thrilled the 82,000 fans, time and time again, with his galvanic runs, his physical power and his insatiable desire to run Watford down. Watford, full of experienced internationals, put two or three players against him, but it still could not quell his running.

For long spells, it seemed as if Zaha might be a youth trying to do too much on his own. But then, well into overtime in an otherwise goalless stalemate, Zaha’s running paid dividends. He was simply too quick, too strong and too clever for Marco Cassetti.
 The Italian, on loan from Udinese, was turning 36 this week; the future Manchester United star is 16 years his junior.

Cassetti lunged for the ball and caught the shin of Zaha. Up stepped an even older player, the almost 40-year-old Kevin Phillips, to hammer home the penalty goal that won Palace 120 million pounds, or $180 million, with its place in the Premiership.
“I’m tired, every bit of me is aching,” Phillips said, “but if that is my last kick in football, I’ll take it.”

He ushered Zaha toward the microphones on the field. “This man,” he said, “goes to Manchester United now with our best wishes.” And suddenly, Zaha was in front of the cameras. “I’m speechless,” he said. “Exhausted and speechless. It’s all I wanted. I told myself I’m going to give 100 percent. All I wanted to do was help out the team, I’m glad we actually made it.”

The reported fee that takes Zaha from Palace to United is 15 million pounds, a fraction of the debts that almost sank the club three years ago. But that 15 million pounds is also but a tiny sliver of what Zaha’s final run earned for the club as it tried to safeguard its future from here on out.

The fee for Neymar might never be truthfully told because neither Santos nor Barcelona intends to tell how, what, why or when the deal was struck. We could imagine it heavily involves Nike, because the American sportswear giant wields great influence in these issues.

Money is the business part. The talent is obvious. The human spirit will determine what becomes of Neymar and Zaha now.

“The bigwigs get all the good players, all the time,” concluded Crystal Palace’s manager, Ian Holloway. “We lose Wilfred, but we’re in the Premier League. God help us.”