In our first podcast we went into great length over the explosion of money being thrown around during the summer transfer window. We couldn’t have predicted the ripple effect that Pogba’s transfer would have had on world soccer just a year later. The quarter of a BILLION dollar transfer of Neymar shook the soccer world and really changed how clubs do business now during the transfer window. Now the norm seems to be paying audacious amounts of money for players who are of great quality but don’t exactly fit the price tag of that large sum. You may be asking though, “What the hell does this have to do with a NBA champion who grew up in my home state of New Jersey?” Let’s just say that Neymar Jr. and Kyrie Irving are way more alike than you would think.
Let’s start with the basics. Neymar and Kyrie are both the same age, 25. Both players were born in the southern hemisphere: Kyrie from Australia and Neymar obviously from Brazil. Neymar and Kyrie were both highly regarded prospects before transitioning into the professional leagues of their sports. Kyrie emerged from the prestigious Duke University, well respected for some, and having staggering college statistics even though being sidelined with a toe injury for the majority of his freshmen year. He would eventually go on to score 28 points in his last Duke game falling to Arizona State in the tournament. He was the number one overall pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA draft.
Neymar made his name playing for Santos, a club famous for the G.O.A.T. himself, Pele. It is also now notorious for producing the former AC Milan and Man City striker Robinho who has been sentenced to 9 years in prison for sexual assault but that’s beside the point. Neymar in just his second season went on to score 48 goals in just 60 games for Santos and had clubs around the world salivating at the mouth trying to acquire him. The president of Santos even threatened to report Real Madrid to FIFA for attempting pre-contract negotiations with Neymar. During Neymar’s tenure at Santos he would garner rewards such as South America’s best player award through 2011-2012 and the 2011 FIFA Puskas award, essentially best goal award around the world so click the link to see this beauty. In May of 2013, Barcelona confirmed the transfer with Santos and received the young man who would create one of the greatest attacking tridents that world soccer has ever seen, MSN.
Both players faced early struggles when they first jumped into the scene. Kyrie unable to make the playoffs his first three years prior to teammate Lebron James making “The Return”. Neymar not immediately making the starting eleven at Barcelona and then faced a severe back injury during the 2014 World Cup against Colombia which ultimately lead to the infamous 7-1 defeat to Germany on home turf. I could argue things could have been a lot different had Neymar played that match but the same argument could be made in the first showdown between Golden State and the Cavaliers with Kyrie being sidelined by injury. I don’t want to dwell on these early struggles but instead move onto the good stuff.
Let’s start chronologically with the historic Treble winning campaign between 2014-2015 for Neymar and company. In the year in which Barcelona added their second Treble, Neymar was at the forefront. He would go on to score 39 goals in all competitions and 10 of which in the champions league, tied with Messi and Ronaldo. This was the first time in which someone other than Messi and Ronaldo were top Champions League scorers since KaKa, his own brazilian brethren. Notable achievements during this campaign would include scoring the second goal in the 2015 Copa del Rey Final victory over Athletic Bilbao with the score line ending 3-1. He helped secure La Liga by scoring a header against Real Sociedad leading to a 2-0 victory, putting Barcelona 4 points ahead of rivals Real Madrid with 2 games left in the season. What really stands out is his Champions Leagues accomplishments. Blasting two goals against Team Zlatan in the the quater-finals. Topping off the 3-0 victory at the Camp Nou against Bayern Munich in the Semi-final and securing their spot in the final by scoring both goals in the second leg defeat at Allianz Stadium ending 3-2. The final between Juventus in Berlin, Neymar would put the cherry on top of a historic year by scoring the final goal and help make Barcelona champions of Europe. The trio that was MSN (Messi, Suarez, and Neymar) would combine for 122 goals and break the record for most goals by a trio in Spanish soccer history. The following year Barcelona won the domestic double and Neymar continued to enter the conversation as 3rd best player in the world and the successor of Messi and Ronaldo.
Kyrie just a year later would begin the climb to greatness. The 2015-2016 regular season campaign included hitting a season high of 35 points against the Los Angeles Lakers on February 10th and finishing as the #1 seed in the East with a 57-25 record. In the first game of the playoffs against the Detroit Pistons he had a playoff high of 31 points and the Cavaliers went on to absolutely demolish the East finishing 12-2. Kyrie struggled early in the rematch between Golden State and shot 7 of 22 for 26 points in Game 1. Facing down the barrel of the gun which was a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, Kyrie & Lebron went super nova. In Game 5 both Lebron and Kyrie mustered up 41 points and held the Warriors to under a 100 points. The dynamic duo followed that up by dropping 40 points the following game tying the series up 3-3. Game 7 is when Kyrie went down in Cleveland lore. With just 53 seconds left in the game Kyrie hit “The Shot” which gave the Cavaliers a 92-89 lead and would ultimately be the deciding factor in their legendary comeback. Not only was this the first time an NBA team had come back from 3-1 but it was also the first championship for the Cavaliers that ended a 52 year spout in which the city of Cleveland had been suffering.
Following these incredible accomplishments, these individuals hit a wall. The 2016-2017 seasons were both down years in terms of accomplishments for the Cavaliers and Barcelona. The Cavaliers may have walked their way through the Eastern playoffs but were undoubtedly routed by the Warriors in the third meeting between these respected teams. Kevin Durant proved too much for the defending champions. Barcelona, even with the unworldly comeback against PSG fueled by Neymar, were embarrassed in two legs by Juventus in the Semi-finals of the Champions League. They failed to win La Liga with arch rivals claiming the domestic title and Champions League title in the same year. Barcelona only able to bring home the Copa del Rey which seemed like disappointing victory when only two years ago we saw an unstoppable force that was MSN.
The summer of 2017 was the beginning of the end with rumors circulating around both players. Kyrie became tired of Lebron and did not speak with teammates for long lengths of time. Kyrie thusly requested to be traded. Neymar also pleading his unhappiness at Barcelona and rumors began swarming of his departure. It was mayhem. The world soccer media is already insane during the summer transfer window but when it comes to arguably the 3rd best player in the world it becomes pure mayhem. Luckily for Barcelona fans they had Girard Pique ensure them of Neymar’s status at the club with his famous tweet. Wow did that blow back right into his face.
As a soccer super fan, the Neymar trade that occurred on August 3rd, 2017 hit me way harder than Kyrie’s. Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain broke the bank at $263 million. I was absolutely stunned. I had become accustomed to MSN and the Neymar/Barcelona brand as one and the same. Not even three weeks later on August 22nd Kyrie was shipping over to Boston. Kyrie’s departure to the Celtics sent shock waves through the NBA. Sending him to the one team truly able to compete against the Cavaliers in the East with arguably the second best coach in the NBA just didn’t make sense. You look at the assets the Cavaliers received in the trade such as Isiah Thomas and company but still didn’t feel equally weighted. The same can be said with Barcelona only acquiring Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, and ultimately being plagued with injury upon arrival.
The question screaming in my head was WHY? Why would they leave? Both athletes seemed to be in ideal situations. Both players sitting at two massive franchises, well Neymar especially, both well accomplished there and established, and most importantly playing with the two best players in the world in their respected sports. I can already read the comment section in my head with Ronaldo and Jordan fan boys ripping that apart but let’s be fair. We can at least say both Messi and Lebron will go down as a top 5 players of all time and both can be said to be the best at the time in their respected sport over an extended period of time.
At first I thought it was a immaturity. Why leave greatness? Greatness doesn’t come around every day. Hell, it only comes around once in a lifetime for the most part. I believed that Kyrie and Neymar couldn’t handle being second fiddle. They couldn’t stand playing that Scottie Pippen role and wouldn’t stand to shut up and just be the #2 on the team. Why couldn’t they just wait for both Lebron and Messi to finish out their careers in the next few years and then take the mantle as #1 on both teams. Where is the patience!? I then took a deep breathe.
Living in the shadow of greatness can be daunting. You are constantly trying to live up to that shadow you are standing in. When a player reaches such high quality such as Neymar and Kyrie I can see them wanting to take the next step and prove the world that they can handle a franchise of their own and be the face of said franchise. That nothing’s going to stop them from striving to be #1 and win on their own. I find that terribly admirable. Not having to deal with Lebron’s player only meetings, social media nonsense, and uncertainty of his future. Not having to deal with everyone telling you how Messi is going to go down as the greatest of all time and you feeling as though you can really hit your full potential on your own.
So far both players have been vindicated in their respected moves. Kyrie lead the Celtics to a 16 game winning streak and sits at the top of the NBA at 19-4. Neymar has been absolutely sensational for PSG with 15 goals and 9 assists in all competitions and absolutely dominating Ligue 1 in France and first team to qualify for the round of 16 in the Champions League. It’s hard to say what will happen going forward if the Celtics could pull off an NBA title in the next coming years and if PSG can mature enough to finally win their first Champions League. What I do know is that I’m so excited for the coming years to watch these two reach their full potential and emerge out of the depths of the shadows they left.
-- Kevin Pettit