Could Neymar rival the as yet unrivalled Messi?

It has never taken very much for Pelé and Diego Maradona to fall out.

Locked in an apparently perpetual dispute over their respective claims to be the world’s greatest ever footballer, this is a match without the restraint of yellow and red cards where the elbows and the tackles keep flying in and the final whistle never comes.

It’s hardly a beautiful game. It’s pretty undignified. Mud is thrown. Points are scored. Own-goals too. No one wins. But that of course hasn’t stopped them.

Ahead of the Club World Cup final between Santos and Barcelona in Yokohama on Sunday, they have clashed again, this time regarding their anointed successors, Neymar and Lionel Messi, who should go head-to-head in that match.

“Making an individual comparison,” Pelé said. “I think Neymar is much better, more complete. He strikes the ball well with both feet, can dribble off either side and scores goals. Messi is very good, but a lot depends on where he plays. He is doing very well at Barcelona, but with Argentina, he has had difficulties. Neymar plays well for both Santos and the national team.”

It’s not difficult to find a few holes in that rather general and self-interested comment.

Maradona, however, chose to ignore them and launched another broadside at his rival, suggesting without any apparent self-irony that rather than lack any substance, Péle’s argument was full of it. “It seems he took the wrong medication,” Maradona sneered. “He got confused and didn’t know what he was talking about. I suggest next time, he takes the right pills before making any suggestions and that he should change his doctor.”

Pelé might of course reply that, coming from Maradona, that’s a bit rich. But let’s remain on the high ground and not lower ourselves to that level. After all, there’s a good debate to be had here: Can Neymar genuinely provide Messi with a greater rival than Cristiano Ronaldo? Can he push him that little bit further?

It’s worth asking because, as Brian Phillips wrote in a piece for Grantland, somehow, the Messi and Ronaldo rivalry hasn’t really happened. That feeling was compounded after Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Real Madrid in El Clásico last Saturday. A photo published in Marca appeared to show Ronaldo kneeling at the feet of Messi, and though it was inadvertent, it captured the mood.  Yet again, he had been forced to defer to his rival.

In 13 games against Barcelona, Ronaldo has found the back of the net on just three occasions. Messi, by contrast, has made a far more telling impact, putting 13 goals past Real Madrid in 16 games. From that perspective, it’s a very one-sided, unequal, almost abstract contest. For whatever reason, Ronaldo doesn’t seem to feed off Messi unless it’s for the Pichichi. He doesn’t visibly raise his game when confronted with his rival face-to-face.

Another example of this was the Spanish Super Cup in August. Ronaldo went into it on the back of a full pre-season. Messi had completed just three days training. Who made the decisive impact? Messi again.

None of this is to deny Ronaldo his reputation as one of the great players of his generation or of all-time. It’s a question of whether he’s the player - if there actually is one - who can rival the unrivalled, who can get under Messi’s skin, who can draw a reaction, make the Barcelona star doubt himself or take it up yet another notch.

Neymar might not be a better player than Ronaldo right now, but by all accounts he certainly has the potential. Their over elaborate playing styles are similar. So too is their habit of wreaking havoc from the left-hand side. Neymar, however, has achieved more, it can be argued, than either Ronaldo or Messi had at this stage of their careers. At the age of 19, they had scored 7 and 21 goals respectively. According to Opta, Neymar has struck 79 times in 153 appearances for Santos and played a leading role in the club’s triumphs in the 2010 Copa do Brasil, when he hit 11 goals, and the 2011 Copa Libertadores, when he dominated the second leg of the final against Peñarol.

Of course, some caveats do come in the standard of the opposition, as Arsène Wenger touched upon in his glowing assessment of the boy who grew up idolising Robinho.

“If I had the money, I’d put it on Neymar,” he said. “You can’t say that Neymar is Pelé as he had won the World Cup by the age of 17. He has the potential to be one of the future great strikers but at the moment there’s a big difference between the Brazilian League and a European League.”

Still, there’s no doubting his ability. Nor how he has been a protagonist in major continental competitions. Neymar was voted Brazil’s Young Player of the Year in 2009. He has since been the country’s Player of the Year the last two seasons running and was the only person on France Football’s 25-man shortlist for the Ballon d’Or to be playing outside of Europe. His magnificent solo effort against Flamengo is also up for the FIFA Puskás award for Goal of the Year with Wayne Rooney’s bicycle kick against Manchester City and Messi’s flick against Arsenal as its competition.

Rivalry is about talent, that’s for sure. There has to be a creative friction that comes from competition. But that’s not all. It’s also about a narrative, and with that in mind, maybe Neymar’s story pits him against Messi more so than Ronaldo’s does him.

For starters there’s an immediate clash of footballing civilizations: it’s Brazilian versus Argentine, a contrast that, for obvious reasons of history, is starker than with the Portuguese and much more multi-layered with the 2014 World Cup as its event horizon, the gravitational pull of which is impossible to resist.

Hosted by Brazil, an entire nation will presumably be looking to Neymar to not only inspire the country to a sixth world title, but also to ensure there is no repeat of the 1950 'Maracanazo', when outsiders Uruguay pipped Brazil to the World Cup in their own back yard. Messi will be the enemy within. He too will be burdened with pressure, albeit the kind that comes with having to answer the only remaining question mark hanging over his career: can he follow in Maradona’s footsteps and lead Argentina to World Cup glory?

That’s still two and a half year’s away. A lot can happen in the meantime. Moreover it’s worth remembering that Neymar and Messi aren’t likely to be in regular contact until then. As hosts, Brazil aren’t required to qualify for the World Cup, and so won’t meet Argentina in a competitive environment until 2014 at the earliest. Neymar, meanwhile, has also signed a two-year extension on his existing deal at Santos, taking his pay in line with the best players in Europe. That indicates he will continue to play his club football in South America until after the World Cup, limiting his chances of meeting Messi. 

But does a rivalry need proximity? Can a lack thereof actually preclude one from being generated, nourished and sustained? Well, not necessarily. This is why that in prospect between Neymar and Messi is so intriguing. Because on the one hand you have a player who chose to stay in his homeland and on the other you have a player who chose to leave. These decisions have come to define them and their relationships with Brazil and Argentina respectively.

Neymar has had offers from Europe since he started out as a footballer. When he was 14, he spent a week on trial at Real Madrid. “But I decided to come back. It wasn’t the moment to leave Brazil.” He then famously turned down Chelsea the summer before last. “I really don’t regret it. From the moment I decided to stay in my country, I told myself that I was right to make that decision. Without it, I would not have won the Copa Libertadores, a title that Santos had been waiting 50 years to win.”

His part in that campaign, which saw Santos lifting a trophy they hadn’t won since Pelé was in the side back in 1963, goes some way to explaining his popularity. But it’s his staying that has made it all the sweeter and inspired even greater affection. Brazilians are used to seeing their very best players leave early. They have to be enjoyed from afar, and their success does not always feel like their own. That’s not the case with Neymar, whose very being in Brazil is also a powerful symbol of the country’s financial strength and a badge of honor that the people can wear.

The public image of “selflessness and patriotism” he has managed to get across, even if it is contrived and has been ‘bought’ by Santos with the help of Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff who they appealed to in order to attract sponsors capable of helping the club meet his contract demands, has endeared him to the people immensely. It even calls to mind how Janio Quadros declared Pelé a “national treasure” to prevent him from moving abroad amid interest from Europe’s biggest clubs in 1961.

Now compare that with Messi.

He left Argentina at the age of 13 because Barcelona offered to pay for the growth hormone treatment that his hometown club, Newell’s Old Boys, could no longer afford, and despite refusing to represent Spain at youth level there is an absurd suspicion, though by no means unanimous, that he is more Catalan than Argentine even if he still speaks with a distinct Rosario accent, that he reserves his best performances for his club rather than his country, that he isn’t a “player of the people” because he didn’t grow up among them like Carlos Tevez did in Fuerte Apache. 

Writing about Messi’s uneasy relationship with his country for the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson cited an article from El Gráfico in 1928 that sought to personify Argentine football as “a pibe with a dirty face, a man of hair rebelling against the comb; with the intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze that seem to hint at a picaresque laugh that does not quite manage to form on his mouth, full of small teeth that might be worn down by eating yesterday’s bread.”

Sacrilegious though it might be to say it considering he is a Brazilian, but that image, when taken out of its Argentine context, seems closer to Neymar than the Messi. True, the Mohawk isn’t exactly “rebelling against the comb”, rather it’s embracing the gel or wax, but it fits with the mischief evoked above. Messi’s is cut sensibly and, as Wilson claims, it gives off the impression that “a streak of European discipline has entered his soul.”

That notion of discipline filters into their playing styles too. Neymar has nearly as many cards as he does goals in his fledgling career. Opta make it 47 yellows and three reds to be exact. Diving. Dissent. It’s part of his game, and by indulging him and thus inflating his sense of importance, Santos have risked “creating a monster.”

That phrase was used by René Simões, the former coach of Atlético Goianense, after he witnessed Neymar launch a tirade at his boss Dorival Junior during a match with Santos in September 2010. Dorival Junior had stripped Neymar of his penalty-taking duties, provoking a furious reaction. With a game against Corinthians coming up, the club sensationally backed the player and sacked the managed instead.

No such histrionics are imaginable with Messi. To compare the two in that respect, it’s like fire and ice. Indeed, Messi recently told France Football that if he’s aggrieved about a result or a decision, he closets himself off and doesn’t respond to text messages. There are no tantrums. But then again, Neymar is still only 19. He’s five years’ Messi’s junior, though the Argentine, perhaps because he was educated in the ways of La Masía rarely if at all acted in a similar fashion during his teens.

Neymar’s apparent combustibility will prove hard to extinguish. Just look at how Wayne Rooney, for instance, is still prone to frustrating acts of immaturity. For now, a healthy respect exists between Neymar and Messi. But there is something in their characters that could make this a rivalry like that between John McEnroe and Björn Borg.

So far, they have met only once in a friendly between Argentina and Brazil a year ago in Doha. It ended 1-0. Messi scored the winner in the 90th minute and Neymar could only look on in awe after being substituted.

“I’ve always said Messi is the best player in the world,” he claimed.

Outside forces will continue to compare and contrast, to build things up, to create smoke when maybe there’s no fire. “It is certain that Neymar will be the best in the world by 2014, without doubt,” said Santos coach Muricy Ramalho. “Now Messi is the best, Cristiano Ronaldo is second. Neymar is third best in the world, but by the World Cup here in Brazil he will be first.”

That still remains to be seen. Even so, Sunday’s encounter should be fascinating.

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