The age of the post-millennials has begun. With the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi starting to flicker ever so slightly and the poster boy for the future of football, Kylian Mbappé, commanding attention, football’s new generation have stepped up to claim their glory.
Among those staking a claim for a starting XI berth for club and country is Brazilian sensation David Neres, who has kicked up a dust storm with 12 goals and 15 assists in all competitions this season. Neres’ stats belie a footballer who is on the cusp of becoming a superstar in the mould of those who have worn the number seven and number 10 jersey for his current club, Ajax, and his home country, Brazil.
In his first full season of Champions League football, Neres has stamped his name on the competition, particularly in the knockout stages.
Scoring twice and assisting once in the last four games against two of the competition’s favourites – Real Madrid and Juventus – and doing it with such flair and precision that one can already hear a rhythmic samba tune every time he touches the ball.
In fact, it was his performance and goal against defending champions Real that got him selected for his debut cap against the Czech Republic, where he entered the fray in the 63rd minute in the famed canary yellow number seven jersey.
Twenty minutes later he had an assist to his name after slipping the ball to Gabriel Jesus, who finished into an open net. Not bad for a last-minute addition and someone who ignored the Brazilian coaches’ phone call because he does not answer blocked numbers.
“Neres is going to have to continue playing very well. We say to them: ‘Play very well in your clubs,’” coach Tite said after the match, giving Neres and all the youngsters hope that they can still stake a claim for a Copa América selection, which takes place in Brazil from June 14.
Less than a week later Neres donned the number 7 jersey for Ajax, scored once and assisted another goal against PSV Eindhoven, effectively relegating them to second place on the league while Ajax took over as leaders.
Neres was Ajax’s leading goal scorer last season with 14 goals in his first full season in the Eredivisie. But the beginning of this season saw him benched because of his mercurial form, with Ajax coach Erik ten Hag saying that when he was “worthy of a starting place” he would be given it. In November and December last year he finally hit his purple patch and has barely looked back, scoring 10 of his 12 goals in the last six months – most of them in vital matches.
Despite the intense pressure from players younger than him (see graphic) the 22-year-old “chilled and relaxed” attacker has found that sweet spot where he can dictate terms and even have coaches asking him where he wants to play (usually on the wings).
His pace, dribbling and technical prowess found him earmarked for the role of number seven, but his coach believes even the coveted number 10 jersey is within his grasp. Ten Hag has said: “This season he has developed further. Not only in his favourite position on the right, but also on the left and as a number 10.”
A fair warning to one of the Sons of the Gods, though: the fable of Icarus should serve as a cautionary tale to the young player, especially if he is making statements on his personal life that have already caused a stir, such as “I slid into my girlfriend’s DMs saying, ‘I am David Neres, come to me.’ ” He later said it was a joke, but be careful of the sun, Icarus, you still have a treble to play for this season.