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Soccer Notes

Neymar era in Europe nearly here

Brazilian phenom is ready to cash in

By Frank Dell’Apa
November 1, 2011

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On Saturday, Neymar Da Silva scored four goals and had two others disallowed in Santos FC’s 4-1 win over Atletico Paranaense. The next night, Neymar and his family were sent by one of his many sponsors to the New York Red Bulls-Los Angeles Galaxy playoff game in Harrison, N.J.

Companies are throwing money at Neymar, which is a major reason why he has remained at Santos instead of moving to Europe. Santos is paying Neymar the equivalent of about $2 million annually, but he is taking in another $10 million from outside sources.

Yet, Neymar stands to earn much more from what could become a record transfer fee, plus a wage increase, once he goes to Europe.

Santos has been wise to retain Neymar this season. Though the 19-year-old Brazilian is a unique talent, poised for success on the world stage, he did not appear to be emotionally ready for Europe a few months ago, when the offers were coming in.

Santos inserted an exorbitant buyout clause of about $40 million into Neymar’s contract, then resourcefully went about recruiting sponsors to get his paycheck at the level of what he would have earned in Europe. The strategy is paying off for Santos, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the club and will play in the World Club Cup in Japan next month.

Sponsors are anticipating the tournament as a duel between Neymar and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. And Santos supporters are gearing up for the challenge: During the game against Atletico Paranaense, they were chanting, “Barcelona, your time is coming.’’

That could be a final showcase for Neymar before he joins a major European team.

Until recently, Real Madrid seemed to be Neymar’s likely destination. But the mega-rich investors of other clubs are also interested.

Manchester City might be a good fit, as coach Roberto Mancini has shown an ability to adjust to the exigencies of managing young talent. But a Mario Balotelli-Neymar combination might require an unreasonable amount of micromanaging on and off the field.

Balotelli last week set his Cheshire mansion afire in the early-morning hours, lighting fireworks in a bathroom. A few hours later, Balotelli scored two goals for Manchester City in a 6-1 victory over Manchester United.

And Balotelli was also ready with a commentary, pulling up his City shirt to reveal a T-shirt message in the Charlie Brown spirit: “Why Always Me?’’ For which, he received a yellow card.

Growing interest

MLS moved into 10th place among professional soccer leagues in average attendance, thanks to the boost provided by expansion to the Pacific Northwest.

MLS averaged 17,872 spectators per game this season, well below the German Bundesliga (45,368 last season) but catching up to France’s Ligue 1 (18,554), considered to be Europe’s fifth-best league.

It does not seem MLS is close to reaching its potential, judging by the huge crowds turning out for summer friendlies involving Europe’s big clubs and internationals. But MLS has surpassed the NBA (17,319) and the NHL (17,126), which has helped attract television interest. Fox Sports and Telemundo recently bid $1 billion for 2018 and 2022 World Cup rights.

Of course, both the NBA and NHL have greater total attendance than MLS, playing more games with more teams.

But the Seattle Sounders are showing what is possible for MLS. The Sounders averaged 39,000 fans for 17 regular-season games and, after tonight’s playoff game against Real Salt Lake, will have attracted another 170,000 fans for other contests. That total is more than the Seahawks will attract for eight NFL games and will surpass what the Seattle SuperSonics - relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008 - would have drawn for 41 home games.

The numbers should also be clarified when comparing US franchises with Europe’s club system. The top six European leagues (including England’s League Championship) are supporting 142 teams. Add in so-called lesser leagues, such as Belgium, Portugal, and Scotland, plus Germany’s second division, and there are an additional 100-plus clubs being supported with average attendances in the 10,000-13,000 range.

There has been talk of foreign investors attempting to eliminate promotion and relegation in the Premiership, creating a closed system similar to US professional leagues. But even a so-called super league would require a feeder system. And that is the role of the lower division clubs, with the incentive that they can aspire to being promoted. In the US, colleges take on this function.

Nicol got it right

With two games remaining in the 1999 MLS season, former Revolution general manager Brian O’Donovan hired Steve Nicol to coach the team on an interim basis. The Revolution got off to a slow start in the league’s inaugural season in 1996 and had been underachieving under Walter Zenga, who had taken on the role of player-coach.

One of Nicol’s first moves was to shift Paulo Dos Santos into the midfield along with the starters during practice and into the lineup for the final game. To many observers, Dos Santos was a missing piece that could change the dynamic of the team. Nicol justified Dos Santos’s inclusion by saying it just made sense to have him playing.

Unfortunately, other Revolution coaches did not share Nicol’s judgment of Dos Santos, who went on to a successful career in Norway through 2007. Dos Santos was an unselfish holding midfielder in MLS but also displayed flair and scoring ability in local leagues and in college at Mount Ida and the University of Rhode Island. Nicol’s pragmatic take on Dos Santos symbolized how he would guide the Revolution once he was hired permanently in 2002.

The Revolution have had five coaches in 16 seasons - four in their first six years. None displayed the inscrutability, patience, and stoicism of Nicol. But Nicol also proved himself to Revolution players by getting lineups and tactics right. Had the Revolution been able to add an influential foreign player or two during their most successful years, they likely would have won at least one MLS Cup. And Nicol probably would have received rich offers to return to England or Scotland, instead of finishing with a last-place finish, his contract not renewed last week.

Nicol could land with another MLS team, but it might be a strange fit, since his coaching identity is so closely tied to the Revolution. Nicol deserves a chance with a competitive club in Europe, where he would not have to deal with salary caps and other restrictions unique to MLS.

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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