The Confederations Cup doesn't really matter. The games are scrimmages, and tomorrow's result between Brazil and Spain will have no bearing whatsoever on the World Cup. The tournament is just a dry run to make sure Brazil's stadiums and services will be able to handle next year's influx of fans. What does matter, however, are the players.
This year, one player has stood out from the rest. Brazilian prospect Neymar, just sold from his boyhood club, Santos, to Spanish giants FC Barcelona, is already a megastar and one of the world's best players in his own right. But he's attracted doubters, critics, and haters with the move to Spain. Some say, maybe fairly, that he hasn't played against much competition in Brazil. Others keen to foreshadow his European demise say he hasn't done anything for his country, or point to his boyish frame and his propensity for embellishing fouls. But so far in the Confederations Cup, he's making everyone look like fools.
Neymar has scored in three of four games, and was instrumental in both goals to send Brazil past Uruguay in the semifinal. He's third in the tournament in scoring, tied for first in assists, and perhaps most tellingly, didn't need a 10-goal romp against Tahiti in the group stage to get his tally. He's a finalist for the Confederations Cup Golden Ball, and has already proven all but the blindest of his critics wrong. Tomorrow's match against Spain, however will be his staunchest test so far.
That's because when the Brazilian lines up against Spain, he'll be trying to score on his new club teammate Gerard Piqué and Real Madrid stalwart Sergio Ramos, two of the best centerbacks in the world. Supporting the two will be outside backs Álvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba, with legendary keeper Iker Casillas in goal. Spain's back line has only conceded one goal in the tournament so far, on a free kick. These players all start every week at Barcelona or Real Madrid, and this is the caliber of player Neymar will have to face next season and in years to come in La Liga and the Champions League. Tomorrow will be our first real peek into how the young star's likely to perform in the future.
Because aside from being freakishly good, Spain is also unique, in that their style almost mirrors the way Barcelona plays: hogging the ball for long stretches of the game, slowing down the tempo and using possession to minimize their opponent's chances. Interestingly, no other team does this as well as Spain or Barcelona, so we probably won't see Neymar against this specific test again until next year at the World Cup at the earliest. And though the striker's generally been able to do whatever the hell he's wanted this tournament, mainly wreaking havoc down the left side of the pitch in somewhat of a free role, the odds of him running roughshod over the best team in the world are slim. He'll have to be patient. He'll likely be frustrated, and at times—like with Uruguayan superstar Edinson Cavani in the group stage—he'll be all but forgotten on the pitch. But that's OK. He's athletic, technical, and has incredible movement off the ball. So his chance to set up a goal or finish on Casillas will come. And that's when we'll see how clinical, how mature, and ultimately how great he really is.
So far, all the kid's done professionally is score and score and score, which is why many are high on him, and some say he already stands alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player on the planet. At Barcelona, he'll score boatloads more, if for no other reason than he'll be one of the players open on the back post when Messi weaves through three or four or six players in the box and looks up to find someone to tap in his pass. Even if Neymar comes out and delivers Brazil a Confederations Cup trophy in front of their home crowd, this tournament will be forgotten in a year's time. So tomorrow's match against Spain doesn't matter, not really. It's a scrimmage. But in a few years, if the Brazilian does take his place next to Messi and Ronaldo, we might look back on his career and say this meaningless match against Spain was the start.