Neymar dazzles in Al Hilal debut cameo, but stiffer tests await SPL's star summer signing

Brazilian was introduced just after hour in club's 6-1 Saudi Pro League victory against Al Riyadh on Friday

Al Hilal's Neymar celebrates with teammates during the 6-1 Saudi Pro League victory over Al Riyadh at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium on Friday, September 15, 2023. EPA
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Neymar departed his long-awaited debut with Al Hilal’s fervent support chanting his name.

He tapped the club badge on his chest, clapped back at the fans, raised his thumb to the masses, and made the “heart” sign with his hands. He then disappeared down the tunnel, the promise of much more to come filling the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium.

Neymar had been on the pitch for 35 minutes or so on Friday night, introduced to a rousing reception just after the hour in Hilal’s home encounter with Al Riyadh.

By then, the hosts were already 2-0 to the good, Hilal easing past their opponents to move back top of the still-embryonic Saudi Pro League table. To be fair, their unbeaten start to the season had by then felt secure.

Yet Neymar sought to make an impact. It was almost instant. Four minutes after coming on, he received the ball on the edge of the Riyadh area from compatriot Malcom and scooped a delicious pass in return. From there, Malcom was clattered by Riyadh goalkeeper Martin Campana, but the ball fell to Nasser Al Dawsari to place into the empty net.

Not long had passed before Neymar assisted Malcom for Hilal’s fourth. He broke clear on the counter and played in his fellow Brazilian to squirm a shot under Campana. Moments later, Neymar cut inside an opponent to force a handball, leaving Salem Al Dawsari to convert from the spot.

The Hilal faithful mocked booed Al Dawsari taking the penalty, preferring instead for Neymar to open his club account.

He did, though, nearly score. Campana pawed away the ball superbly from close range; then palmed another Neymar shot into Salem Al Dawsari’s path. The captain pounced to round off the result.

Hilal triumphed 6-1. One full month after signing with arguably Asia’s foremost club, Neymar announced his arrival.

Of course, circumstances permitted it. Riyadh offered little resistance, understandably hindered by Hilal’s robust recruitment this summer. Neymar, signed after the 2023/24 league opener and prevented by injury from featuring since, was the only of the club’s seven high-profile additions that did not start on Friday.

His absence has not impeded Hilal – Jorge Jesus’ side have five wins and a draw from six matches – but his belated availability indicates even better times ahead.

Neymar had hinted as much on his return to the pitch last week. Thrust back into action for Brazil in their opening qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup, he scored twice in the 5-1 victory against Bolivia and created the only goal, in injury-time, away at Peru.

The brace against Bolivia lifted Neymar beyond Pele as Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorer. However, his overall play in the double-header enthused greatly the Hilal support.

Obviously buoyed to be back, Neymar slalomed past rivals, teed-up teammates, was full of the flair and the touches that make him the marquee signing of the Saudi top-flight’s Big Breakout this summer.

The challenge now is to deliver on that billing. Neymar, 31, has been beset recently by fitness issues – ankle surgery in March curtailed his final season with Paris Saint-Germain – while concerns regarding his commitment have long plagued him, too.

Champions Al Ittihad, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr and a revived Al Ahli, the other members of Saudi’s traditional “Big Four” now also majority controlled by the Public Investment Fund, have augmented their squads with a host of starry names as well. Given the spend, the quartet appear primed for a prolonged run at the title.

On Monday, Hilal commence the new Asian Champions League campaign at home to Uzbekistan's Navbahor, seeking eventually to go one better than May’s defeat in the final. Already record winners of the continental crown, the standards set some time ago by the capital club demand success on multiple fronts.

Neymar is expected to spearhead compound pursuits. Friday’s cameo came amid markedly amenable conditions. Stiffer tests, of both Neymar’s resolve and his resilience, are sure to lie in wait.

Updated: September 16, 2023, 12:00 PM