It is not hard to picture the scene: a bus full of young players and their coach travel to a match, the atmosphere abuzz with excited chatter but free of the pressure you might expect ahead of a big game. Yes, some might already dreaming of goals, titles and glory but, given they are just 11 years of age and are taking their first steps on the footballing ladder, having fun remains the primary concern.
It was during this formative period that the seeds of a rivalry were sown that looks set to add further spice to this season’s clásicos between Real Madrid and Barcelona – with young Brazilian starlet Casemiro on one side and countryman Neymar on the other. Ten years on from their first tussles, who could have predicted the pair might one day lock horns for Los Merengues and Barça?
“Yeah, this is definitely the stuff dreams are made of,” Casemiro, 21, told FIFA.com. “I can only speak for myself and I’m certainly in dreamland, but I’m sure [Neymar] is too. We’ve even been joking around about it: we’ve been playing against each other our whole lives.”
Indeed, the duo are only rivals out on the field as, after so many encounters, a firm bond has formed between Neymar and the former Sao Paulo midfielder. “It’s cool to have such a healthy friendship off the pitch with a player that you’ve taken on so many times,” said Casemiro. “That’s worth highlighting: over and above the rivalry we have, he’s a great friend of mine.”
The first time the two squared off came in 2003 in Casemiro’s hometown of Sao Jose dos Campos, when he was playing for Moreira, a traditional force at youth level in the region. “We were just a bunch of lads from Sao Jose, but we had a good team, the best in the city,” Casemiro explained. “Back then, we were delighted just to have the chance to play against Santos.”
We’ve even been joking around about it: we’ve been playing against each other our whole lives.
Neymar had not long arrived at Pele’s former club, having been snapped up by O Peixe after terrorising defences in regional futsal tournaments. Come the age of 12, Casemiro was on the books of Sao Paulo, making the pair’s clashes ever more frequent.
Two of the stars of the Brazilian crop of 1992-born players, both were in their nation's squad at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 and, two years later, won the South American U-20 Championship. Later that year, Casemiro was also victorious at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia, while by 2012 they were sharing a dressing room at senior level for Brazil.
Casemiro eyes establishment
Now the pair’s relationship is about to take on an extra dimension with the clashes between Real and Barcelona– the teams meeting in La Liga at Camp Nou in October and the Santiago Bernabeu in March. And while Neymar touched down on Catalan soil this summer with all the fanfare that accompanies a marquee signing, Casemiro is already into his second season in Spanish football and working hard to establish himself as a Merengue first-team contender.
“Of course it’s a dream to play for Real Madrid, but, thanks to the experience I got playing for Sao Paulo and A Seleção, I don’t think I was too overwhelmed by it," said the powerful midfielder, who first had to successfully negotiate a spell at Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s B team, before being definitely signed up to the first-team squad ahead of the 2013/14 campaign. "It didn’t hold too many surprises for me."
Said initiation period in Spain’s Segunda Division would prove fruitful for Casemiro, giving him the opportunity to adapt to the faster pace of the European game and bring all his passing, finishing and aerial ability to the fore. Moreover, Casemiro played alongside some of Real's contingent of promising young Spaniards in Jese, Alvaro Morata and Nacho Gonzalez, as well as assimilating many of the senior team’s tactical requirements.
Casemiro’s debut for Real's seniors was handed to him by Jose Mourinho in April against Real Betis, and he is now under the full-time orders of new coach Carlo Ancelotti, even getting among the goals during the club’s pre-season games. And though he might give the impression of not being star-struck in the presence of so many established names, it is worth remembering that, though still young, Casemiro - like Neymar - has from a tender age always been seen as a world-class player in the making. Not that he is taking anything for granted, particularly given the fierce competition for places at Madrid.
“No, you can’t do that, can you?” he said emphatically. “There are so many top-quality players here that I can’t even begin to describe them all. That’s why I’ve got to give everything I’ve got to take full advantage when my chance comes. Whether it be for one minute, 45 or the full 90, I’ve got to give it my best shot.”
Such preparation and focus will be vital for the challenges ahead, particularly when a new-look Real meet league champions Barcelona. Another thing is for certain: unlike their first encounter in Sao Jose dos Campos as raw 11-year-olds a decade ago, the stage for the latest chapter of the Casemiro-Neymar rivalry could barely be bigger.