Neymar's Barcelona move costs Brazilian football its biggest star

 

So now he is Barcelona-bound, and, for the next few years at least, there will be no more Neymar in domestic Brazilian football.

The timing of the move comes as something of a blow to the national championship, which kicked off at the weekend, and must now kick on without its biggest star.

I well recall the first time I saw Neymar in the flesh - 24 May 2009, when he came on for Santos against Fluminense in the last 10 minutes with the game in the balance. He set up two goals, drew a red card for the opposing right-back and gave a giant hint that he was going to be something special.

This, of course, is one of the great pleasures served up by the Brazilian championship. Every time I go to a game I am buoyed by the delightful thought that I might get a sneak preview of a young player on his way to global stardom.

Year in, year out, a new crop comes through. Last year my favourites were a couple of left-footers - Botafogo's teenage centre-back Doria, and Fred of Internacional, a quick, busy, talented midfielder.

Fred was the star of the show on Saturday in the game that got this year's championship under way, making one and scoring one as his side came back from two down to draw 2-2 away to Vitoria. The sides ran out of steam in the last 20 minutes. Until then, though, it was an excellent match, and a fine advert for one of the most interesting leagues in the world.

In addition to the production line of young players, the Brazilian championship provides a pleasing air of unpredictability.

True, it is not as wide open as it was a decade ago, when relatively small clubs on a roll could dream of glory. Then the playing field was levelled down, because no-one had any money. Now, though, revenues are booming - Brazil's clubs have doubled their income in the last four years.

This means gaps are opening up, especially because the TV rights are sold on an individual basis. The giant clubs are earning much more than the chasing pack. But there are so many big clubs that there seems little chance of the championship ever turning into a permanent two- or three-horse race for the title.

Neymar honours

Neymar

Santos

Campenato Paulista: 2010, 2011, 2012

Copa do Brasil: 2010

Copa Libertadores: 2011

Recopa Sudamericana: 2012

Brazil

South America Youth Championship: 2011

Superclasico de las Americas: 2011, 2012

Olympic silver medal: 2012

And soon there could be some more giant clubs to contest the honours. The traditional heartland of the Brazilian game lies in the big cities of the south east, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, backed up by the nearby Belo Horizonte and, further south, Porto Alegre.

Clubs from the poorer north east have rarely been contenders, despite their relatively high average crowds. But the region is receiving plenty of investment - it will stage half of this year's Confederations Cup  and a third of next year's World Cup - and the hope is that this will help transform the clubs from Salvador and Recife into genuinely national players.

Salvador's rebuilt Fonte Nova stadium certainly looked impressive on Saturday when it played host to the game between Vitoria and Internacional - though the fact the crowd was below 10,000 is somewhat disappointing. The first round of a league campaign is when the 'sold out' signs should be hanging up.

This is in an indication that although the Brazilian championship is good, it could be so much better. Progress is being made - in the stadiums, in a curious new generation of coaches. The clubs are becoming more professional but they continue to exist in a context that is totally amateur.

Power in the Brazilian game lies not with the clubs, but with the 27 state federations - one for every state that makes up this giant country.  And power inside these federations lies with those who control the small clubs. The calendar of the Brazilian game is thus dictated by people who essentially represent no-one but themselves. An insignificant tail wags a huge dog.

This helps explain why the national championship kicked off on the very day that the final of Europe's Champions League was taking place - a blunder of monumental ineptitude for a competition crying out for more global attention.

First, from late January to mid-May, there are the state championships, where the giant clubs waste their time taking on tiny teams. Once upon a time, before Brazil had the infrastructure for a national competition, these were important. These days I know hardly anyone in the Brazilian game who does not believe they are well past their sell by date - though in many cases they are happier saying this off the record.

Neymar da Silva Santos Junior

Born: 5 February 1992, Brazil

Brazil caps: 32

Brazil goals: 20

What he said in November 2012: "I don't know when I'm leaving for Europe - I'm happy here in Brazil. I have a dream of playing in Europe, but in my opinion it is still not the right moment."

Did you know? More than 14,000 Brazil fans signed a petition demanding that Neymar be called up for the 2010 World Cup finals.

The existence of the state championships forces Brazilian football to try to fit two pints into a one-pint bottle. The national competition is crammed into available space - kicking off without the pause beforehand that is such a vital part of a long league campaign, and this year having to shut down for a month to accommodate the Confederations Cup.

It is an object lesson in how not to organise a calendar. Why Brazil's big clubs continue to put up with an arrangement so clearly harmful to their interests is one of the biggest mysteries in sport.

And with the clubs operating so far below their potential, the departure of the stars is inevitable.

"Neymar is leaving," wrote Juca Kfouri, one of the country's most respected journalists, "because he grew too big for Brazilian football, with its state championships, its terrible pitches and its calendar that is out of sync with the football world."

He concluded his piece by sadly trotting out one of his favourite sayings: "God gave us the best players and, to even things up, the worst directors."

Questions on South American football to vickerycolumn@hotmail.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week's postbag;

I live in Columbus, Ohio and like many in the area I have a soft spot for former Boca Juniors and Columbus Crew player Guillermo Barros Schelotto. How is he doing in his first managerial position at Lanus? I saw that Lanus is undefeated thus far in Argentina, just a point off leaders Newell's Old Boys, having only conceded six goals from 14 games. Do Lanus have a chance of overtaking Newell's?

Jacob Mercer

He's not undefeated any more! Form was starting to wobble a bit, and a 3-1 defeat on Sunday means Lanus are now four points behind Newell's and have also been overtaken by River Plate. With just four rounds remaining, the chances are not looking good.

In general, though, Schelotto has made an excellent start to his coaching career. His original plan was to impose an orthodox 4-4-2 on the team, but the players convinced him otherwise - so he has shown the key virtue of being able to listen.