On Thursday night Brazilian poster boy and superstar Neymar turned deflation into elation with a brace as the World Cup hosts came from a goal down to beat relentless Croatia 3-1 in the highly anticipated opening game in Sao Paulo.
It was Neymar’s 50th cap for his country, a milestone he has achieved at just 22, four years after making his senior debut. He carried the weight of expectation on his narrow shoulders, but his experience and the calmness in his game belied his age.
It is no coincidence that Neymar dazzled on the biggest night of his life. This is because his journey towards Thursday night’s performance began like every footballer’s journey should.
The attacking maestro started his international career with the Brazilian under-17 team and graduated to the under-20s and under-23s before making his senior debut immediately after the 2010 World Cup as an 18 year old under coach Mano Menezes.
Neymar has gained so much from playing a lot of international matches at a young age that nothing can faze him now.
Remember Brazil’s emphatic Confederations Cup final victory over world champions Spain last year? Neymar’s performance was that of a player who had gone through the proper stages of international football development, unperturbed by the sight of a Spanish national team that had dominated world football for six years.
Neymar is young but he can certainly be considered an experienced international in the talented Brazilian side, and right now he is proving that the younger a player starts at international level, the better.
There is also Lionel Messi, who made his 50th appearance for Argentina as a 22 year old after making his full debut in August 2005 at 18.
Messi played at every level for his country and featured at the Under-20 World Cup and the Olympics, gaining invaluable experience. Now 26, Messi is captain of his national team at the biggest stage, the World Cup, and is closing in on 100 caps.
The only way to gain valuable international experience is for players to play in major international competitions with all the junior national teams on a regular basis, something that does not happen often here in South Africa.
I have been following South Africa’s junior national teams for some years and many of the youngsters who I thought would be big stars for Bafana Bafana have just disappeared. Two of these players are Thulani Maseko, a player who was nicknamed Zizou, and Justice Nozozo, who used to bang in goals for the national under-17s for fun. There are many more.
These players were not nurtured, and because of this Bafana Bafana coaches have often had no choice but to pick some of the in-form PSL players who have very little international experience, the likes of Edward Manqele and Richard Henyekane to name but two.
Don’t get me wrong, those players are talented, but with no international experience whatsoever before their senior national debuts, most find it difficult to hit the ground running and make a mark at international level. If they had been discovered earlier, they would probably have played for the junior national teams, making life easier when they graduated to the senior side.
Right now, under-20 coach Shakes Mashaba has a good bunch of players who I believe he should use for the Olympic qualifiers next year. The players Mashaba has should go on to represent the nation at the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
It would be even better if they could qualify for the African Youth Championships and then go on to qualify for the Olympics. That will be the sort of international experience they need to help Bafana Bafana perform well at the World Cup.
But knowing how things work in this country, most of these boys will disappear and most of you will never get to hear about them.
I hope things do not turn out that way.
The next Bafana coach should monitor the progress of the junior internationals and if they are good enough to play for the national team, or better than the ones who have failed the nation on many occasions, then he should play them. There is no better way to build a strong national team.
Wouldn’t it be great to see a Bafana Bafana player celebrating his 50th cap at age 22? It certainly would. But it would be even better if we saw most of our players playing at all junior levels before they played for the senior side.