A magnificently threaded through-ball eludes four nearby defenders to find, all alone in the opposing box, the world’s best soccer player, who dances with his mistress for a moment long enough to attract the attention of an entire defense, along with the world. A shot on goal ricochets under the goalkeeper, whose effort provided only the briefest moment of respite preceding the inevitable. A trailing teammate, a regular on the B squad, tracks the ball and slots it into the back of an empty net, winning the game for his dominant side at an abnormally late time.
This was the scene in Sunday’s match between FC Barcelona and Villarreal. For the Catalans, these moments are a dime a dozen. With Lionel Messi, all is possible except for failure, which is a distinct and unacceptable impossibility. My adulation for him, at this point, goes without saying. In this case, the focus belongs to the other two players involved in the movement, Brazil’s fallen hero Neymar, the catalyst, and the Barça B wunderkind Sandro Ramírez, who scored the goal, his first ever for the senior side and in his first La Liga appearance. At just 22 and nineteen years of age, respectively, these two (literally, at times) have the world at their feet, leaving the rest of us to admire immortality and ponder its antithesis.
At what by most non-Brazilian soccer standards is the tender age of seventeen, Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. made his debut for Santos FC. This was, of course, the same domestic side which had once fostered, among others, Pelé, who himself became an international icon long before even giving thought to his third decade. From a much longer perspective than most could reasonably fathom in almost any other profession, Neymar was the anointed one, the person who would rescue Brazil from its relative lull in international competition and restore the joga bonito image which Nike so desperately attempts to impress upon the nation.
After years of creating YouTube highlight videos at the expense of unwitting and incapable defenders, Neymar moved to Spanish giants Barcelona as the scoring counterpoint and eventual successor to Messi. As it often does, hype exploded over the possibilities of two of the world’s best playing together on what was already one of the world’s finest teams. The only people who could stop these two, critics surmised, were each other.
The results have been as expected; the soccer has been mesmerizing. Neymar has fit like a glove into his blaugrana shirt, for the most part, and neither he nor Messi seems to harbor any resentment toward the other. Despite his move overseas and an injury during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, he remains an icon in Brazil for his golden performances with the Seleção. At 22, Neymar has established himself as one of the premier players in the world’s most popular sport.
Sandro Ramírez is another curious case, not nearly the prodigious talent that Neymar projected but nevertheless a compelling figure. Having spent five years in Barcelona’s youth system, Luis Enrique tapped Sandro to replace Pedro Rodríguez in his debut on the wing against Villarreal, from which he scored only minutes later. He will likely return to Barcelona B in the Segunda División for the majority of this season, but a handsome reward awaits his near future in the form of either full-time senior play at Barcelona or a hefty contract elsewhere. At nineteen, Sandro has his finger to the pulse of the soccer-watching world, which is the world itself.
On many weekend mornings from late August through late May, I roll off of whatever I used as a bed the night before, sit down to my computer and set to the task of locating a functional feed through which I can watch Barcelona play (Side note: I don’t do this as early as some, and apparently this sort of thing runs in my family). For years, hazy Friday and Saturday nights gave way to throbbing mornings and early afternoons featuring twenty-two men attempting to put a round object in the back of a net using everything but their arms and hands. A team I’ve never seen play in person from a city to which I’ve never traveled won my admiration from many thousands of miles away. The least I can do is drag up Hungarian feeds. That’s what the mute button is for.
Now is a weird time, one which has been coming for a while but you never stop to contemplate until you’re there. That’s probably for the best. September 3rd of this year marks my twenty-third birthday, the first I’ve had unencumbered by the stresses of academia in nearly two decades. I’m not yet at a place where I feel right brooding over an imminent tick in my time spent rotating around the sun, but 23 is a weird one because I’m not in school anymore, and there is no real cause for celebration. You don’t get to vote for turning 23, nor can you get into all the fun places with your friends and siblings who told you “you’ll understand when you’re older.”
For the birthday’s sake, I should point out that this probably won’t be the worst. Of the ones I remember, turning nineteen a week after moving 650 miles from home stands out in that regard, the memory of my roommate and I passing out my mom’s homemade carrot cake in the lounge of my freshman dormitory to complete strangers still glowing feebly somewhere in the pit of my conscience. Nor will it likely be the best; on my twenty-first, for example, another stranger, one not from my freshman dormitory, threw me a beer from a rooftop at the stroke of midnight and at the provocation of mutual friends. That was pretty righteous.
Getting older is an integral part of life. I’m not here to hash that out, or tell you how to live yours as you get older, or whatever. What I find to be increasingly difficult as I get older is investing in fleeting things. People change jobs and change their minds much more frequently than ever before, and though the world has in some ways gotten smaller, we realize how big it is. Opportunities abound, and none of us can blame anybody else for wanting to seize upon them, especially from a young age. The more you do, the more you experience, the better person you can expect to be, or at least that’s how the thinking goes.
With regard to sports, watching players younger than I am, which is what both Neymar and Sandro are, is now going to start to be the norm, and I’m going to have to learn to accept that. I have a personal rule never to buy the jersey of a player born after I was. At 23, it’s probably going to be the case that my jersey-buying days are over entirely for several reasons, not the least of which being the increasing volume of soccer players I feel compelled to enjoy given their skill. The same is true of traditional American sports, of course. Anthony Davis is almost a two full years younger than I am, and he’s spent the last two years becoming a formidable force in the NBA after winning a national championship at Kentucky. Meanwhile, I was enduring frozen winters in the Bronx, coordinating residence hall programs for people who didn’t care to go unless there was food and driving countless vans full of students and faculty who despised the inconvenient truth of a single shotgun seat.
What we all have in common, however, is the realization and hope that there is much yet to be done. Surely, this isn’t it. Neymar came ever-so-heartbreakingly-close to achieving redemption for Brazil, the host nation, in this summer’s World Cup, but he knows more chances lay in 2018 and, probably, in 2022. Neither he nor Sandro has yet felt the jubilation of a La Liga trophy, and surely one more awaits Barcelona’s golden generation, with either one or both of them in the side. Anthony Davis is the generational-force-in-waiting, patient to seize his throne from the LeBrons and Durants of the world, perhaps sooner and more forcefully than they would like.
I can step back from my accomplishments, graduating college and the like, and only be so pleased with them for moments at a time. I set high standards for myself. I always have. I often fail to meet them and come up awash in disappointment. The hope, however, never leaves my side. It is the guiding specter through dark tunnels and the longest nights. Without college to fall back into and without a sneaker contract to pay off my student debt, perhaps I’m not the most equipped person to be broadcasting words of wisdom to people in the public eye who will never read them. From 23, however, I can unequivocally say this to Neymar, Sandro, Davis and the like without too much hesitation: the best is yet to come, if only because it has to be.