A tear rolled down Neymar's cheek as the national anthem played at the shiny new Mané Garrincha stadium. It was an emotional moment – the preamble to his final club game in his beloved Brazil (for the foreseeable future at least). In amongst the cocktail of feelings must have been a pang of youthful vulnerability. The 21-year-old isn't just leaving boyhood club Santos; he's leaving his boyhood. These were eldest-son-leaving-the-family-home sobs.
On Saturday, Neymar confirmed what everyone already knew: that he was to join Barcelona. It was the end of a lengthy and not particularly enjoyable soap opera, the climax of which involved levels of coquettishness not seen since LeBron James and Eden Hazard unveiled their future plans. Neymar finally revealed his destination via social networks – an entirely appropriate medium for a player who, perhaps more than any other, embodies the term "internet sensation".
The €35million (ish) fee struck many as rather low, particularly given that his buyout clause stood at almost double that. Neymar's contract, though, only ran until July 2014, meaning that there was the possibility that he leave for nothing after the World Cup.
Until 2012, it seemed likely that the contract would be honoured, with Neymar repeatedly voicing his desire to remain in Brazil, close to friends and family. On the pitch, his development went hand-in-hand with that of Santos, whom he led to a historic Copa Libertadores title in 2011. The birth of his son, Davi Lucca, provided further incentive to stay put, as did his nascent relationship with actress Bruna Marquezine.
But gradually the discourse began to change. With Brazilian football increasingly a cakewalk for someone of his skill, pundits started to question whether he'd be better off getting out of his comfort zone before 2014. Santos' failure to qualify for this year's Libertadores meant that the early part of 2013 was particularly unfulfilling, and the Santos board began to feel that, y'know, €35million might be better than €0million.
The decision may have been a trickier one if Santos hadn’t lost their way to such an extent in recent months. Sunday's match – a dire 0-0 draw against Flamengo – highlighted the extent to which the side has stagnated around its star player. While once it purred with youthful verve, it now has all the allure of a vacuum cleaner – and precious little of the functionality. The third generation of Meninos da Vila (Paulo Henrique Ganso, André, a repatriated and motivated Robinho) have moved on: Ganso to São Paulo, André to Unfulfilled Promise Island, Robinho to goodness knows where.
Other good players remain, of course, but the cracks have been showing. Arouca is not the dominant presence he once threatened to be, while most of the back four will be collecting their pensions within a few years. Neymar's strike partner against Flamengo was new recruit Henrique, a player who doesn't even have his own Portuguese Wikipedia page. As former Brazil forward Tostão put it this week, "Playing in such a weak Santos side is demeaning for someone of Neymar's talent."
At Barcelona, the 21-year-old will naturally benefit from playing with – and against – better players. And while the interest in him in Europe will be no less feverish than it has been in Brazil, he will not be alone in centre stage; he will be one dot in a constellation rather than a lone star. At any rate, the pressure at Barça can hardly be greater than a weight he already bears: that of carrying the seleção’s World Cup hopes.
The Brazilian game will be poorer for the sale of its biggest star, but he leaves a legacy of hope: that the country’s footballing production line has merely slowed rather than stalled; that a player’s commercial value isn’t predicated on playing for a European giant; that clubs in Brazil can aren’t condemned to selling their prize assets the first time a big outfit comes knocking.
Santos, in particular, have profited enormously from keeping Neymar until the last year of his contract – even if the result was a lower transfer fee. With his commercial pull, the club’s marketing revenue increased by over 400% between 2009 and 2012. Over the same period, the number of Santos sócios (paying members) leapt from 24,000 to 63,000. In 2011, the Peixe earnt R$25million (around £8million) from television rights; one year later, the figure stood at R$75million.
It would be churlish, of course, to reduce Neymar’s influence in Brazil to the merely financial. His real value lies in the memories he leaves behind – of beautiful goals, scarcely believable dribbles and title wins. He is, above all, a deeply Brazilian player, full of daring and cunning. It was appropriate, then, that his last match came in a stadium named after perhaps the most Brazilian player of all.
Not that this was a conclusive goodbye: “It’s just a ‘see you later’,” Neymar told reporters after the game. Enjoy him while you can, Barça. The joy of the people won’t be gone forever.
A version of this article was published by The Guardian.