Could Neymar rival the as yet unrivalled Messi?
It has never taken very much for PelÃÂ© and Diego Maradona to fall out.
Locked in an apparently perpetual dispute over their respective claims to be the worldÃ¢ÂÂs 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.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs hardly a beautiful game. ItÃ¢ÂÂs pretty undignified. Mud is thrown. Points are scored. Own-goals too. No one wins. But that of course hasnÃ¢ÂÂt 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.
Ã¢ÂÂMaking an individual comparison,Ã¢ÂÂ PelÃÂ© said. Ã¢ÂÂI 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.Ã¢ÂÂ
ItÃ¢ÂÂs 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, PÃÂ©leÃ¢ÂÂs argument was full of it. Ã¢ÂÂIt seems he took the wrong medication,Ã¢ÂÂ Maradona sneered. Ã¢ÂÂHe got confused and didnÃ¢ÂÂt 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.Ã¢ÂÂ
PelÃÂ© might of course reply that, coming from Maradona, thatÃ¢ÂÂs a bit rich. But letÃ¢ÂÂs remain on the high ground and not lower ourselves to that level. After all, thereÃ¢ÂÂs 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?
ItÃ¢ÂÂs worth asking because, as Brian Phillips wrote in a piece for Grantland, somehow, the Messi and Ronaldo rivalry hasnÃ¢ÂÂt really happened. That feeling was compounded after BarcelonaÃ¢ÂÂs 3-1 victory over Real Madrid in El ClÃÂ¡sico 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, itÃ¢ÂÂs a very one-sided, unequal, almost abstract contest. For whatever reason, Ronaldo doesnÃ¢ÂÂt seem to feed off Messi unless itÃ¢ÂÂs for the Pichichi. He doesnÃ¢ÂÂt 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. ItÃ¢ÂÂs a question of whether heÃ¢ÂÂs the player - if there actually is one - who can rival the unrivalled, who can get under MessiÃ¢ÂÂs 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 clubÃ¢ÂÂs 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 PeÃÂ±arol.
Of course, some caveats do come in the standard of the opposition, as ArsÃÂ¨ne Wenger touched upon in his glowing assessment of the boy who grew up idolising Robinho.
Ã¢ÂÂIf I had the money, IÃ¢ÂÂd put it on Neymar,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂYou canÃ¢ÂÂt say that Neymar is PelÃÂ© 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 thereÃ¢ÂÂs a big difference between the Brazilian League and a European League.Ã¢ÂÂ
Still, thereÃ¢ÂÂs no doubting his ability. Nor how he has been a protagonist in major continental competitions. Neymar was voted BrazilÃ¢ÂÂs Young Player of the Year in 2009. He has since been the countryÃ¢ÂÂs Player of the Year the last two seasons running and was the only person on France FootballÃ¢ÂÂs 25-man shortlist for the Ballon dÃ¢ÂÂOr to be playing outside of Europe. His magnificent solo effort against Flamengo is also up for the FIFA PuskÃÂ¡s award for Goal of the Year with Wayne RooneyÃ¢ÂÂs bicycle kick against Manchester City and MessiÃ¢ÂÂs flick against Arsenal as its competition.
Rivalry is about talent, thatÃ¢ÂÂs for sure. There has to be a creative friction that comes from competition. But thatÃ¢ÂÂs not all. ItÃ¢ÂÂs also about a narrative, and with that in mind, maybe NeymarÃ¢ÂÂs story pits him against Messi more so than RonaldoÃ¢ÂÂs does him.
For starters thereÃ¢ÂÂs an immediate clash of footballing civilizations: itÃ¢ÂÂs 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 MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂs footsteps and lead Argentina to World Cup glory?
ThatÃ¢ÂÂs still two and a half yearÃ¢ÂÂs away. A lot can happen in the meantime. Moreover itÃ¢ÂÂs worth remembering that Neymar and Messi arenÃ¢ÂÂt likely to be in regular contact until then. As hosts, Brazil arenÃ¢ÂÂt required to qualify for the World Cup, and so wonÃ¢ÂÂt 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. Ã¢ÂÂBut I decided to come back. It wasnÃ¢ÂÂt the moment to leave Brazil.Ã¢ÂÂ He then famously turned down Chelsea the summer before last. Ã¢ÂÂI really donÃ¢ÂÂt 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.Ã¢ÂÂ
His part in that campaign, which saw Santos lifting a trophy they hadnÃ¢ÂÂt won since PelÃÂ© was in the side back in 1963, goes some way to explaining his popularity. But itÃ¢ÂÂs 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. ThatÃ¢ÂÂs not the case with Neymar, whose very being in Brazil is also a powerful symbol of the countryÃ¢ÂÂs financial strength and a badge of honor that the people can wear.
The public image of Ã¢ÂÂselflessness and patriotismÃ¢ÂÂ he has managed to get across, even if it is contrived and has been Ã¢ÂÂboughtÃ¢ÂÂ by Santos with the help of BrazilÃ¢ÂÂs 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 PelÃÂ© a Ã¢ÂÂnational treasureÃ¢ÂÂ to prevent him from moving abroad amid interest from EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs 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, NewellÃ¢ÂÂs 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 isnÃ¢ÂÂt a Ã¢ÂÂplayer of the peopleÃ¢ÂÂ because he didnÃ¢ÂÂt grow up among them like Carlos Tevez did in Fuerte Apache.
Writing about MessiÃ¢ÂÂs uneasy relationship with his country for the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson cited an article from El GrÃÂ¡fico in 1928 that sought to personify Argentine football as Ã¢ÂÂa 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 yesterdayÃ¢ÂÂs bread.Ã¢ÂÂ
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 isnÃ¢ÂÂt exactly Ã¢ÂÂrebelling against the combÃ¢ÂÂ, rather itÃ¢ÂÂs embracing the gel or wax, but it fits with the mischief evoked above. MessiÃ¢ÂÂs is cut sensibly and, as Wilson claims, it gives off the impression that Ã¢ÂÂa streak of European discipline has entered his soul.Ã¢ÂÂ
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. ItÃ¢ÂÂs part of his game, and by indulging him and thus inflating his sense of importance, Santos have risked Ã¢ÂÂcreating a monster.Ã¢ÂÂ
That phrase was used by RenÃÂ© SimÃÂµes, the former coach of AtlÃÂ©tico 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, itÃ¢ÂÂs like fire and ice. Indeed, Messi recently told France Football that if heÃ¢ÂÂs aggrieved about a result or a decision, he closets himself off and doesnÃ¢ÂÂt respond to text messages. There are no tantrums. But then again, Neymar is still only 19. HeÃ¢ÂÂs five yearsÃ¢ÂÂ MessiÃ¢ÂÂs junior, though the Argentine, perhaps because he was educated in the ways of La MasÃÂa rarely if at all acted in a similar fashion during his teens.
NeymarÃ¢ÂÂs 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 BjÃÂ¶rn 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.
Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂve always said Messi is the best player in the world,Ã¢ÂÂ he claimed.
Outside forces will continue to compare and contrast, to build things up, to create smoke when maybe thereÃ¢ÂÂs no fire. Ã¢ÂÂIt is certain that Neymar will be the best in the world by 2014, without doubt,Ã¢ÂÂ said Santos coach Muricy Ramalho. Ã¢ÂÂNow 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.Ã¢ÂÂ
That still remains to be seen. Even so, SundayÃ¢ÂÂs encounter should be fascinating.