Collar up. A series of tiny steps. A paradinha – a little stop. The goalkeeper drops to his right. Neymar passes the penalty into the opposite corner.

Just two minutes had passed and Santos were off the mark and en route to an 8-1 thrashing of Guarani in the first leg of a Copa do Brasil last-16 tie.

Neymar and his team-mates rushed to the corner and celebrated by donning caps and pretending to rap in an homage to Santos fan and musician Mano Brown.

Dorival Junior's team would go on to score another seven, and Neymar would finish with a personal best of five.

At that point, it was undeniable that a world-beating talent had emerged at Santos.

Party time

April 14, 2010 provided Santos with so many reasons to celebrate.

It marked the club's 98th birthday and legendary figures Pepe, Edu and Clodoaldo were in attendance at the Vila Belmiro to enjoy the occasion.

Left-back Leo wore the number 98 on his shirt, while on-loan Manchester City attacker Robinho sported 200 to reflect the number of times he had put on a Santos jersey for a competitive fixture.

Despite such landmarks there was only one subject of conversation at the final whistle: Neymar.

The birth of a goalscorer

The wiry youth operating from the left wing had only turned 18 two months prior, but 2010 was to be the year Neymar entered the global consciousness.

After scoring 13 goals in his first season with the senior team, he had already surpassed that total when Guarani arrived on the coast of the state of Sao Paulo. He ended the year with 42 in all competitions.

Breaking through alongside mercurial playmaker Ganso and poacher Andre, the trio of promising academy products were dubbed as the third generation of Meninos da Vila – a moniker that was bestowed upon Juary, Pita and Joao Paulo in 1978, then Robinho, Diego and Elano in 2002.

Although Neymar's mid-penalty dummy was soon outlawed, he used it to great effect to open the scoring after Cleber Goiano only managed to stop a trademark surge from deep by dynamic midfielder Arouca with a desperate lunge inside the box.

Racing clear

Neymar may have ended the game with five goals but he could so easily have had more.

His end product was not as fine-tuned as it would go on to become. He dribbled into dead ends and misplaced crosses from the left as Dorival became increasingly frustrated with his team's inability to increase their lead despite dominating possession.

Although their relationship would end in acrimony with an on-field falling out resulting in Neymar being dropped and Dorival getting the sack in response, the player heeded his coach's demands on this occasion. An attempted throughball rebounded back off a defender and Neymar fired it across goal and into the bottom-right corner in the 29th minute.

By dummying Ganso's incisive pass and leaving it for Robinho, Neymar helped Santos extend their lead further two minutes later. His hat-trick was completed when another magnificent Ganso pass was squared to him at the back post by Arouca.

The result was already beyond doubt but Neymar made Santos' task even easier when he dragged the ball back and flicked it behind his standing leg to Robinho, with Cleber's challenge claiming nothing but player for a second yellow card on the stroke of half-time.

No letting up

He may have failed to guide a header home from Wesley's cross within two minutes of the restart, but Neymar beat Fabinho Junior and drew a foul to win a penalty that Marcel slammed in after 56 minutes.

Juliano pushed a blistering effort from Neymar at the end of a sweeping move past the post, only to see Santos manoeuvre the resulting corner to Marquinhos in the middle. His chip into the box was looped beyond the stranded Guarani goalkeeper by the head of Robinho before the hour.

There was one moment of revelry for the Guarani players, though, when Moreno drilled a stunning 25-yard free-kick into the top-right corner in the 73rd minute.

Five star

However, there was to be no upstaging Neymar.

He controlled Robinho's low cross from the left expertly and delicately flicked beyond Juliano with a quick second touch.

Neymar then rounded off a formidable attack to cap an incredible individual and collective display. Madson sprinted down the left, sent the ball inside for Robinho, whose first touch rolled straight into the path of Neymar for a low effort inside the near post.

A dejected Juliano said after the match: "I'd never conceded eight before, but Santos have to be congratulated."

The aftermath

The secret was well and truly out.

In the book 'My Story - Conversations with my Father', Neymar's dad said: "It was one of Juninho's best matches. He scored five times! It felt like the good old days, when Pele played for Santos. Except that now it was the Santos of Neymar Jr and his friends."

His form showed no sign of abating and 14,000 people signed a petition for Neymar to be selected for Brazil's 2010 World Cup squad, while Pele, Romario and Ronaldo were among the footballing heavyweights to get behind the idea. Unsurprisingly, Selecao boss Dunga took no notice.

"The lobbying that is done for certain players to get in the national team never made me nervous or frustrated," Dunga said after leaving Neymar, Ganso, Ronaldinho and Adriano out.

Chelsea did not doubt that Neymar was ready for a move to Europe, but their advances in August 2010 were turned down by a player keen on securing legendary status at Santos.

He unquestionably achieved that. O Peixe won the Copa do Brasil and the Campeonato Paulista that year, with two more state championships following before Neymar departed for Barcelona. There was also success in the 2011 Copa Libertadores and the 2012 Recopa Sudamericana.

It was a memorable, decorated spell for Neymar and Santos, and his five-goal haul against Guarani was one of the first moments it all looked truly possible.

Has there ever been a football player you've loved watching so much that you could be confident of writing down a long list of reasons for your adoration?

For me, that player is Ronaldinho, and seeing as the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year and 2005 Ballon d'Or recipient turns 40 on Saturday, I wanted to pay tribute.

The former World Cup winner will celebrate his birthday in a maximum-security Paraguayan prison after being accused of entering the country on a fake passport – and he apparently continues to rack up goals and assists in kickabouts behind bars. Only Ronaldinho.

In honour of the legendary Brazilian on this landmark day, here are the 40 reasons why I love him.

 

1. Within three minutes of kick-off in a Paris Saint-Germain versus Marseille game I recorded on VHS in March 2003, he flicked the ball over the heads of two players and won a free-kick when dribbling away. When he scored with a dink over the keeper later in that game, a love affair was born.

2. He was the master of the no-look pass. And it didn't even need to be necessary.

3. Whether you call it an elastico or a flip-flap, Ronaldinho loved them. It was the trick I was most beguiled by as a teenager and, to my endless frustration, could never get right myself.

4. He marked his debut for Barcelona with a stunning 30-yard drive that crashed in off the underside of the crossbar. It was gone 01:00 local time!

5. Ronaldinho had arrived in Catalonia with the reputation of a party lover firmly established. Who can blame him – if you were that good, wouldn't you just want to constantly celebrate?

6. That goal against Chelsea.

7. He assisted Ludovic Giuly in a 3-0 win over Osasuna in October 2005 using his back. I mean, who does that?!

8. He picked Barcelona over Manchester United. Nothing against the Red Devils, but it would have been tough to watch him play for a Premier League team that wasn't mine.

9. That samba shuffle celebration and the thumb-and-little-finger hand gesture.

10. He got a standing ovation at the Santiago Bernabeu – as a Barcelona player.

11. Those cascading locks and gummy smile.

12. He scored directly from a corner for Flamengo during a 3-2 defeat to Avai in 2011. Anyone with a 'gol olimpico' on their resume gets the utmost kudos.

13. As a keen follower of Brazilian football, I was delighted when Ronaldinho signed for Fluminense – the team I'd chosen to support during a three-month stay in Rio de Janeiro. It was somehow even better when he terminated his 18-month contract after just nine appearances.

14. Alongside former Everton striker Jo and current Everton winger Bernard, he helped Atletico Mineiro win their first Copa Libertadores title in 2013.

15. He always seemed to be playing with a smile on his face, or at least not far away from it.

16. Ronaldinho may have been in decline and far from his twinkling best when he rocked up at Liga MX side Queretaro, but a double against Club America earned him a standing ovation at the iconic Estadio Azteca.

17. He posed for a photo with me in Barcelona. OK, it was via a green screen, all right?!

18. That was during an October 2003 visit to the city that included going to watch Barca take on Real Murcia. Ronaldinho made sure to treat me to a goal in a 3-0 win.

19. He made England's elimination from the 2002 World Cup a little less painful with the most outrageous of goals. (I reckon he meant it, too.)

20. For starring in Nike's iconic 'The Cage' and 'Ole' adverts.

21. Somehow, he scored from behind the goal during a training session with Flamengo. It was the kind of sorcery most can only dream of.

22. Before going viral was a thing, Ronaldinho went viral. Footage of him juggling the ball and volleying it against the crossbar FOUR times in succession without it hitting the ground wrote him into folklore. I still don't know whether it was real or not…

23. When Ronaldinho dribbled, he did it at electric pace and with startling agility, and although he often took several knocks he did his utmost to stay on his feet.

24. It was a Champions League semi-final against Milan: chest control, the ball lifted over Gennaro Gattuso's head, flicked past Andrea Pirlo with two more touches, and when Alessandro Nesta deigned to get in his way, Ronaldinho stretched a leg out behind him and used his heel to square to Samuel Eto'o.

25. In the days before Ousmane Dembele and Martin Braithwaite struggled with freestyle tricks at Barcelona presentations, Ronaldinho was balancing the ball on his head, rolling it forward to give it a little kiss, then sending it back to rest on his forehead. That's how you do it.

26. He made great use of his shoulder; either to deftly bring the ball down or flick it on to a team-mate.

27. His 360-degree spin to get between two Werder Bremen players. It doesn't even matter that he was tackled by the next defender.

28. He did not join Manchester City after leaving Barcelona. (See point eight.)

29. For filling countless hours of my time at university with his YouTube highlights.

30. Ronaldinho was able to baffle defenders without even touching the ball.

31. Because he scored one of the most jarring chips during his time at Atletico. From 16 yards out on the left side of the box, with the Arsenal de Sarandi goalkeeper seemingly in a good position, Ronaldinho clipped a beautiful effort into the top-left corner.

32. Most of the greats excel from free-kicks. The sight of Ronaldinho stepping up to one in a central area from a 90-degree angle to the goal was a thing of beauty.

33. Because he did not retire straight away after leaving Fluminense. He said he wanted to continue playing (but only after Rio's famous carnival, of course) and ended up going on tour, playing in exhibition games for whoever would pay him.

34. For teeing up Lionel Messi's first senior goal for Barcelona, and doing it with a scoop pass.

35. Against Villarreal at Camp Nou in the 2006-07 season came one of his most memorable strikes. After controlling Xavi's cross with his chest, he span 180 degrees and sent a bicycle kick back across goal. *chef's kiss*

36. For scoring under-the-wall free-kicks at Barcelona, Flamengo and Atletico.

37. His 'water bottle trick' when Atletico took on Sao Paulo. Go and look it up. He showed zero shame in punishing Rogerio Ceni's goodwill.

38. Throughout his career Ronaldinho kept trying to score by stealing the ball away from goalkeepers as they took a drop kick.

39. Another El Clasico moment from April 2004. This time it was an outrageous scoop in behind for Xavi to lift beyond Iker Casillas in the 86th minute and secure a 2-1 win.

40. Because in my lifetime, no other player has made watching football as enjoyable as he did.

Coronavirus continued to make its presence felt across worldwide elite sport on Wednesday.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic and major American sports franchises were taking appropriate measures as European football was forced to react once more.

Sports governing bodies have also had their say, with events calendars becoming increasingly fluid.

Here are some of the latest events to be impacted.

In the United States the Golden State Warriors have confirmed their game against Brooklyn Nets on Thursday will be played behind closed doors, making them the first NBA team to make such a move following consultation with the City and County of San Francisco.

This directive also means the San Francisco Giants is working with Major League Baseball to make alternative arrangements after the planned March 24 exhibition game against the Oakland Athletics at Oracle Park was cancelled.

Seattle Mariners are hoping to relocate their opening games of the MLB regular season after Washington governor Jay Inslee announced large group events in the state would be banned throughout March.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) will stage its flagship March Madness basketball tournament "with only essential staff and limited family attendance".

Coronavirus cases in Spain have spiked, and the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has postponed the Copa del Rey final between Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao.

The showpiece fixture was due to take place in Seville on April, with reports suggesting May 30 has been pencilled as a new date.

Barcelona have cancelled training sessions at their La Masia headquarters for the next 15 days, while RFEF has recommended football at all levels beneath the top two professional leagues is called off for two weeks.

In Germany, Eintracht Frankfurt announced Thursday's Europa League game against Basel will take place behind closed doors, while this weekend's derby between Hertha Berlin and Union Berlin will also take place without supporters.

Mainz's clash with Cologne is another of the forthcoming Bundesliga games where fans have been told to stay away.

The Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal became the first football match in England to be postponed as a coronavirus precaution and City are offering refunds on tickets to future fixtures up to and including the day of the game, acknowledging unease among supporters over taking part in large gatherings at this time.

Pep Guardiola's side have matches at home to Burnley and Real Madrid over the coming week.

CONMEBOL, the governing body for football in South America announced Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana matches held in Paraguay will take place behind closed doors, in line with local government advice.

Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup, will stage all remaining matches in its domestic football season without supporters, although CAF has decided to maintain its competition schedule unless the WHO declares a country in Africa to be high risk.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has postponed the Fed Cup Finals in Budapest after Hungary's government prohibited public indoor gatherings of more than 100 people.

On their tour of Sri Lanka, the England cricket team have been told to avoid casual interaction with fans, such as selfies and autographs.

Flamengo begin their Club World Cup campaign against Al Hilal in Tuesday's semi-final, with coach Jorge Jesus convinced they will prove themselves to be a better team than tournament favourites Liverpool.

Jesus – who coached Al Hilal until January this year – has overseen a wonderful few months for Flamengo since being appointed in June, guiding them to success in the Brasileiro and Copa Libertadores, which booked their place in the Club World Cup, adding to their Campeonato Carioca success prior to the Portuguese boss' arrival.

Flamengo lifted the Libertadores trophy for only the second time in their history thanks to a dramatic 2-1 win over defending champions River Plate last month – star striker Gabriel Barbosa netting twice in the final minutes of the match having crushed fellow Brazilians Gremio 6-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals.

The Rubro-Negro are generally seen as the only credible threat to European champions Liverpool, even if most expect Jurgen Klopp's men to have little trouble bringing the trophy back to Anfield.

But, ahead of Flamengo's semi-final clash with AFC Champions League winners Al Hilal, Jesus has his focus firmly on Liverpool.

"For everyone else, Liverpool are better [than Flamengo]," Jesus told TV Globo.

"What counts the most is for me. Others may think Liverpool are better, but if we get to the final we will see who is better.

"And I believe the best will be Flamengo, but it's the hardest title we'll ever play."

Al Hilal head into Tuesday's clash in strong form having won each of their past five matches across all competitions, including Saturday's 1-0 victory over ES Tunis in their first 2019 Club World Cup match.

Much of the pre-match focus in relation to the Saudi Arabian club has been on the Jesus link given he played a part in the construction of the squad.

But Carlos Eduardo does not think Jesus' familiarity with some of the Al Hilal team will have much significance, as the incumbent Razvan Lucescu is the third coach to take charge of club since the former Benfica boss left 11 months ago.

"For sure, he [Jesus] will try to change things that we know [about him and his tactics], but we're different to his time," the in-form midfielder told reporters. "It'll be totally different. We'll use our weapons for an advantage, he'll use his weapons to try for an advantage.

"The team's style is totally different [to when Jesus was there], so I don't think there's any issue of advantage for any side.

"Almost nothing [is the same], it's a different time, a different team. It's obvious some players could take and learn from their coach, but it's almost an entirely different team."

Lucescu added: "Everyone in the world knows Brazilian football produces a huge quantity of talented players, but football's not just about talent.

"It's about spirit, moments, opportunities the game opens to you. We play with nothing to lose knowing we play one of the best teams in the world."

Player to watch

Flamengo – Reinier

With Barbosa, Everton Ribeiro, Lincoln, Vitinho, Gerson and Giorgian de Arrascaeta at his disposal, Jesus is truly blessed with attacking talent. But one to keep an eye on – not just this week, but over the next few years – is 17-year-old attacking midfielder Reinier. The teenager has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence and is already being linked with major European clubs, such as Real Madrid and Arsenal. Skilful, a keen goal-scorer and impressively built for a teenager, Reinier could use this tournament as a springboard.

Al Hilal – Gustavo Cuellar

Much like Flamengo, Al Hilal have some solid options in attack with Sebastian Giovinco, Bafetimbi Gomis, Andre Carrillo and Carlos Eduardo. However, it is reasonable to expect the Saudi club to come under more of a defensive examination than the Brazilians, and that is where a familiar face will be expected to give Al Hilal an edge. Colombia international midfielder Cuellar played for Flamengo as recently as August and fills an important role for his new side, sitting just in front of the defence and breaking up attacking moves. His tenacity will be vital if Lucescu's men prevail.

A shot at the sporting immortality of back-to-back continental titles against a formidable opponent in the form of Flamengo.

River Plate face a Brazil v Argentina blockbuster in the first Copa Libertadores final to be staged as a one-off game – a change now mired in the logistical nightmare of moving the showpiece from Santiago to Lima at short notice.

Yet all of this is nothing to fear when compared to the bigger picture.

"All us River fans are scared that Marcelo Gallardo could leave," midfielder Exequiel Palacios told Infobae.

"No one wants him to leave. We hope that he'll stay for many more years and keep giving joy to River fans."

Increasingly, for Palacios, his team-mates and a fervent fanbase, this looks like a forlorn hope.

Since returning to coach the club he represented across three spells as an attacking midfielder during his playing days, Gallardo has inspired one of the most successful periods in River's decorated history.

Witheringly nicknamed Las Gallinas by sworn enemies Boca Juniors due to their reputation for choking on the big occasion, River have doubled their number of Libertadores triumphs under Gallardo's leadership, from two to four.

Number four, of course, arrived unforgettably at Boca's expense last season. River prevailed 5-3 on aggregate after a 3-1 extra-time win in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Santiago Bernabeu – the second leg of the final having been moved to Madrid after Boca's team bus was attacked en route to El Monumental for the originally scheduled fixture.

If growing speculation is to be believed, it is LaLiga's other major footballing coliseum where Gallardo might soon by plying his trade.

Barcelona bound?

"Gallardo will be coach of Barcelona in December," former River midfielder and 1986 World Cup winner Claudio Borghi told TNT Sports this month, in comments unlikely to have been welcomed by under-fire Blaugrana boss Ernesto Valverde. "He is one of the best coaches in the world.

"[River Plate president Rodolfo] D'Onofrio said he'd only leave by quitting his post, but I know this from a direct source."

Irrespective of the veracity of Borghi's information, while acknowledging the man himself has sought to quell the rumours, the prospect of Gallardo landing another of the biggest jobs in world football is compelling.

His record on the big occasion is outstanding, as evidenced by the 11 trophies lifted during his tenure.

A directive from the River board to focus on continental success has been carried out to the letter, with the 2014 Copa Sudamericana and three Recopas Sudamericana sitting alongside the 2015 and 2018 Libertadores.

This return has come amid a huge turnover in playing staff – a long-accepted reality for South American teams turning out high-quality football before the prying eyes of European scouts.

Of the side that won the 2015 Libertadores, only Leonardo Ponzio, Jonatan Maidana, Gonzalo Martinez, Camilo Mayada and Rodrigo Mora remained among the squad that tasted glory in Madrid. The Camp Nou powerbrokers would do well to spot Gallardo's astute ability to rebuild, given their uneven and expensive record in the transfer market over recent years.

Boca would certainly be delighted to see the back of him. The ultimately futile 1-0 win in this season's Libertadores semi-final second leg at La Bombonera, after going down 2-0 in the initial match, was their first in seven Superclasicos.

Gallardo's shrewd tactical flexibility was to the fore during last season's final, with a switch from his favoured and fluid 4-4-2 to a back three for the away leg providing extra width that Boca struggled to deal with.

Injuries in attack forced him into a 4-5-1 for the return, but slick combination play and the feature of midfield runners supplementing the attack remained in fine working order on River's night of nights.

Admired by Guardiola and Messi

"What Gallardo has done is unbelievable. He gives them consistency year after year, even though they lose players," Pep Guardiola told TNT last month.

"I don't understand how he's never nominated for manager of the year. It's as if only Europe exists."

That seal of approval from a Barcelona great comes alongside a potentially more significant one from Lionel Messi, who included Gallardo behind Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino in his top three when voting for the 2019 Best FIFA Men's Coach award.

Of course, Barcelona have gone down the route of appointing a coach from Messi's homeland fairly recently and his fellow Rosario native Gerardo Martino finished the 2013-14 season without a major trophy or his job.

An acclimatisation process would be necessary, not least in terms of week-in, week-out combat in LaLiga. River's superb recent Libertadores record has come at the expense of seriously competing for the Superliga. Key men are routinely rested either side of major knockout matches and their last league success was in 2014, immediately before Gallardo's arrival.

There would be these and more questions to answer. If he is able to see off Flamengo and lift the third Copa Libertadores of his coaching career, the chances of Gallardo having to provide the answers might increase considerably.

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