Remember the Name: Ruben Neves - the Porto midfielder on the fast track to the big leagues
The teenage midfielder has already captained Porto, and is on course to make Portugal’s squad for the European Championships. A move to one of Europe’s big guns surely becomes - how far can he go?
Name: Ruben Neves
Achievements so far: Porto debut at 17, Portugal debut at 18, youngest captain in Champions League history
For any highly-regarded young prospect in any sporting field, comparisons to an established hero are one of the many early rites of passage.
Lionel Messi has not been ‘the new Diego Maradona’ (just as Neymar is not the new Pele) but, before both men played enough football for all fans to come to grips with their individual styles – and realise that they are the first versions of themselves, rather than some modern re-imagining of a prior star - such equivalences are an understandable, albeit lazy, shorthand way of giving unaware fans an idea of their talent.
For Porto midfielder Ruben Neves, the first significant comparison he received certainly elevated his profile considerably.
“Ruben Neves, for a 17-year-old, is fantastic with the ball at his feet, he knows how to position himself and he’s aggressive,” his teammate Cristian Tello, formally of Barcelona, said last season. “He’s similar to Sergio Busquets.”
Tello’s comments sparked a wave of reaction pieces on the internet, asking exactly who this youngster being compared to perhaps the finest holding midfielder in the modern game actually was. What they found was certainly impressive: Called into Porto’s senior squad just after his 17th birthday, then-manager Julen Lopetegui (himself once of Barcelona) surprised fans by then going a full leap further naming the callow youth in his team for the opening league game of the season.
Neves responded in thrilling fashion, scoring after just 11 minutes and earning the man-of-the-match award before his late substitution. He has been in and around the first team ever since, even being named captain over the last few months.
"He is a young boy with plenty of attributes,” Lopetegui said. “I already knew him from the Portuguese U17 team. He has so much quality and that compensates for his lack of experience. Being young is a condition, not a sin."
The club’s president, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, was even more effusive: "A few months ago he was not even in the U19 team. He is the breakthrough of the season and I am very happy about that, not only because I know how much he worked to get here but also because he is a true Porto supporter who has this club in his heart."
Since making his debut, Neves’s rise has only continued. After becoming the youngest Portuguese player in Champions League history last season (beating a certain Cristiano Ronaldo), he then became the youngest captain in the tournament’s history this season after taking the armband against Maccaibi Haifa. Not only is he in the team on merit - holding his own against opponents with far more experience - but he is now tasked with leading by example.
His physical attributes are impressive – he reads the game well, can put in a tackle and has a broad range of passing that allows him to instigate attacks – but it is the mental attributes, the ones that led him to be granted the captaincy, that have perhaps played the bigger role in allowing him to make such an immediate impact at senior level.
Neves seems utterly unfazed by any new challenge thrown his way, and has a composure and grace under pressure that has led managers to burden him with more and more responsibility.
“People talk about his technical and tactical talent, but Ruben Neves has extraordinary talent in terms of his mentality,” Porto’s B team coach, Luis Castro, said. “He plays the game with incredible calmness and knows what each passage of play asks of him.”
Under-17 coach Jose Guilherme agrees: "When he was playing at Under-16 and U17 levels, he was already showing the attitude of a professional. We knew right from the start he was not going to get lost on the way to the top.
“His success does not surprise anyone who knows him and has worked with him. He is a leader on and off the field and has the profile of a true Porto player."
It will be interesting to see how he develops. The Busquets comparison makes a certain sense, but he has also shown flashes of a calmness in and around the opposition box that suggests it would be wasting part of his talent not to allow him further forward. He could well develop more along the lines of Steven Gerrard – a player as comfortable sitting in front of the defence, running box to box, or even playing the No. 10 role, flitting between the three as his manager, or the game situation, demands.
Whether Neves, like Gerrard, remains at his boyhood club for the prime of his career remains to be seen. Over the last decade Porto have been a club whose financial health has been predicated on player sales, meaning their transfer policy has invariably been dictated by cold, hard figures. If an offer comes in for a star that ensures Porto make a sizeable profit then, well, the player is sold.
But Neves, a true homegrown player, is different - both as a link to the fans and a man who has never acquired in the first place as a potential profit-turner. Already a cornerstone of the team, for the Porto attraction it is almost more attractive to look to the future with Neves as one constant to be relied upon.
He is bound to attract significant offers in the near future, so it will be interesting to see just how resistant the club are to his departure when confronted with huge sums.
“Ruben has a contract until 2019 and not until 2017, as sometimes I see in reports,” club president Pinto da Costa said. “We would like to keep him at FC Porto, as a kind of Joao Pinto [who played for Porto for his entire 16-year professional career]. That is, he was a symbol and legend of the progress of the club for several generations.
“I never want him to leave Porto. Since I want him to stay for a long time he can be Porto's greatest captain.”
The reality, of course, is players of Neves’ potential no longer stay in Portugal forever. Already represented by the almost omnipresent Jorge Mendes, it is not hard to see the teenager landing at Real Madrid, Manchester United or Chelsea in the near future.
It will be another giant step up in the career of a player who has already made a few of them – but it is that bulletproof mentality, as much as his talent, that suggests he will know how to cope.
“I’m not going to talk about foreign teams. I’m focused only on this stage of my career,” Neves said recently.
“[I must] work hard, be dedicated, get lucky, but also seize my opportunities. Age no longer counts for anything. Being here I'm a player like the others, with the same responsibilities.”