Vargas and Neymar battle for player of the year accolade
In the last competitive game of the South American season, Eduardo Vargas scored a goal that made sure Universidad de Chile won the domestic title, and also highlighted why Napoli are taking him across the Atlantic.
Vargas broke from the halfway line. Cobreloa defender Sebastian Roco, worried about his pace, kept backing off. Vargas' control of the ball at pace was so good that he was able to do two things.
First, make a little change of angle to give himself more room. Second, look up and appreciate the situation unfolding around him. He had seen that keeper Nicolas Peric was a few metres off his line. Without breaking stride, Vargas unleashed a beautifully precise chip, over Peric but under the bar.
It is this type of talent that has made the 22-year-old the outstanding figure of the last few months of South American football; but not the player of the year. It was a two horse race, but Neymar of Brazil and Santos pulled away to win the annual prize organised by the Uruguayan newspaper, El Pais.
Vargas came on strongly towards the end of the year, but the first half of 2011 belonged to Neymar. His year began with the South American Under-20 Championship, and a four-goal haul against Paraguay that had even the Argentine press branding him 'Neymaradona.'
Eduardo Vargas scored twice as Universidad de Chile won the Copa Sudamericana with a 3-0 home win over Liga de Quito of Ecuador. Photo: Getty
He was then the key figure as Santos won the Copa Libertadores for the first time since 1963. But from a purely individual point of view, his highlight probably came at the end of July with a goal he scored against Flamengo.
Picking up possession wide on the left, he ran diagonally across the pitch, with a quick exchange of passes and then, on the edge of the area, coming up with an extraordinary dribble past centre-back Ronaldo Angelim.
Neymar opened out his body and played the ball past the defender with his left foot, emerging round the other side to poke right footed past the keeper. It was as if Neymar had passed to himself. In a fraction of a second he had become two players, and worked his own two-against-one situation against an experienced defender.
Neymar and Vargas going head to head for the 'player of the Americas' title is a good sign. Both are worthy inheritors of a great tradition.
A few years ago Brazilian centre-back Juan mused on the differences between top players in Europe and in his country - though in effect he might as well have been speaking about his own continent.
"Technically, the Europeans are better than the Brazilians in terms of passing, shooting, heading," he said, which is not as surprising as it might seem, given that the extra pace of European football means that functions need to be executed faster. "But we have more ability, with an unmatched capacity to dribble."
This ability to come up with an improvised solution - showcased by Vargas and Neymar in their superb goals - is a trademark of the South American game. It could be seen as a metaphor for the survival skills needed by the poor kid born on the wrong side of the tracks, where a sharp eye and a quick mind come in handy for taking advantage of the fleeting opportunities that life throws up.
Then, of course, there is the dynamic of football. One generation inspires the next. Kids in Brazil aim to place themselves in the tradition of Neymar and all those greats who came before him. Chilean kids will be trying to emulate Vargas, now of Napoli, and also his magnificently talented Barcelona-based compatriot Alexis Sanchez.
But what of British kids? One of the most fascinating aspects of football is its global dimension. Tactical innovations can be born in Holland and picked up years later in Colombia.
Local culture clearly has a major impact, but the competitive nature of the game means that there is a constant trade of information, ideas and, especially these days, of players as well.
When I left England in 1994, the Premier League was still an overwhelmingly domestic concern. Much has happened since and the pace of the change has been breathtaking.
In my childhood footballing idols were often all action, charge-through-the-mud types. I don't even remember us giving any attention to free kicks - apart from during the 1974 World Cup, when Rivelino's rockets made a big impression. I imagine that these days the curling free kick is a normal part of a kid's skill set.
And are there kids in Middlesbrough growing up trying to copy Juninho? Or young Manchester City fans seeking to pick up Sergio Aguero's capacity to conjure something out of nothing? I would love to set off a debate this week about how football's globalisation has changed the way that British kids approach the game when (or if?) they go to the park for a kickabout.
Perhaps there are kids out there capable of the same kind of improvised genius of a Neymar or an Vargas. It is a nice thought to kick off 2012.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) Could you please give me your views on Erik Lamela and tell me if his move to Roma was a good one for him?
A) A class act, I think. Elegant, lovely left foot, good vision, combines well and has a surprising change of pace. I saw plenty of him while he was at River Plate, and felt sorry for him. They were in dire crisis and expecting a teenager to solve their problems on his own, which is clearly unfair. I haven't seen much of him since the move to Roma, but I did see that Totti said that Lamela is his heir, which is high praise indeed.
Q) Welliton Soares de Morais or simply Welliton who plays for Spartak in Russia looks to switch nationality if he is not called up for the Brazilian national team. He seems a very exciting striker who can lead the entire front line with his electric pace and stellar finishing. He is a sturdy little striker who I believe can be a nuisance for any defence. Having scored nearly 60 goals in 90 appearances, how has he not been called up by Brazil? What are your thoughts on a possible call-up and why do you think he is frequently overlooked when others such as Vagner Love have previously represented their country?
A) I like him a lot, but he has a big problem in terms of a Brazil call-up - he doesn't really have much of a constituency in Brazil. He played for Goias, an unglamorous provincial club and though the occasional game from Russia can be seen on Brazilian TV, he has largely been forgotten at home. Brazil coach Mano Menezes has called up a few surprise choices, so he can't be totally ruled out. But his call up would be the kind of thing the Brazilian press would attack, along the lines of 'who is this unknown?' and 'we must be able to find a better striker who plays for a Brazilian club'.