The Club World Cup confirmed what we already knew: Messi is Boss, Neymar still has to earn his stripes
This was never going to be a dual for the unofficial title of ‘world’s best footballer’. Despite the Messi versus Neymar flimflam, the Club World Cup final in Yokohama was about the best team in the world in Barcelona, led by the world’s best player in Lionel Messi, taking on the ill-equipped challengers from South America, Santos. Forget the Japanese-schoolgirl-style icon worship. Comparisons at this stage between the 24-year-old from Rosario and Neymar are profoundly unfair on the Brazilian teenager. Four goals to Barcelona, none to Santos. Two superb strikes from Messi while Neymar barely got a sniff. It was never close. It was never going to be.
It is to Neymar’s immense credit that he has always dismissed such comparisons, and humbly expressed his admiration for Messi when pressed. “I can’t compare myself with Messi,” he has said, “not now or for many years. He has already won too much and guides one of the best teams in the world.”
The likeable Brazilian defers to Messi the same way Messi defers to Maradona before him, and Maradona defers to Pel… eh, well the way most true champions venerate those who came before them. Neymar may be flattered to be elevated to such levels in so many people’s eyes, but the appraisals can hardly be helpful to the youngster.
Imagine the scenario. You are 19 years old. Sure, you have won the Brazilian title and the Copa Libertadores. You are one of the highest earning players on the planet and you make a cool €800,000 a month on top of your wages from advertising. However, you know your opponent has a starting eleven containing a healthy smattering of all-time great players and will enjoy somewhere between 70 and 80% possession. It is a team led by an ice-cool Argentinian who is about to win his third Ballon D’Or and seems to play on some etheric plane inaccessible to other earthlings. In the lead up, every swinging dick is turning the match into some sort of personal dual between you and Mr. Preternatural. Feel the pressure much?
Whether or not he ends his career as a legend alongside the likes of Pele, Maradona and Messi will depend on how much he is able to learn from days like this one.
Early exchanges in Yokohama will only have traumatised the light-framed Brazilian further. Santos played a five-man defence, meaning every time Messi received the ball in midfield there were a few precious yards of space in front of him to scuttle into. Within minutes of kickoff, the Rosarino had had three runs at the Santos backline, only to be outnumbered off the ball. The Argentinian could be confident that chances would continue to fall his way, while Neymar was barely given a sniff of the ball.
Messi’s goal came on 17 minutes. Typically, predictably, it was a golazo. A surreal Xavi first touch was followed by a through ball to the Argentinian, who sashayed the ball into the net in three feather-light dance steps. By that time Neymar had seen the ball twice, and both times had been closed down with minimum fuss by the Barcelona defence, marshaled brilliantly by the veteran Carles Puyol (who could also teach Neymar a thing or two about wild haircuts). By that time the match result was already inevitable.
Barcelona added another through Xavi, then another through Cesc Fabregas as the half drew to a close. Messi was monotonously sublime – he somehow manages to look imperial while shuffling about with his head down and shirt out. He is provided with his dais by the midget geniuses around him; Iniesta, Cesc, Neymar’s good friend Dani Alvez, Xavi, with the huge sparkling eyes and superpowers of an Anime character.
Neymar must rely on Ganso, the Goose, to conjure chances for him, yet both were hobbled by an almost total lack of possession. As time on the ball becomes rarer, the pressure to do something outstanding with every single touch becomes overbearing. It’s like waking a stand-up comedian in the middle of the night with a gun to his head and telling him he has three seconds to say something funny before you pull the trigger. He would be lucky to blurt out a knock-knock joke, and similarly, Ganso and Neymar appeared rushed and flustered whenever they received the ball. Desperation does not beget inspiration, at least on the football field (and in strained stand-up comedian analogies).
In the second period, Barcelona reverted to their we’ve-already-won-so-we’re-going-to-tiki-taka-you’re-arses-into-oblivian gameplan and Neymar spent much of the time marking Messi. Talk about humbling. Early in the half the Argentinian found himself with only the Santos ‘keeper to beat, but was denied by a fine save. Neymar was gifted a similar chance minutes later, and was also unable to convert. The difference between the two? Messi knew more opportunities would saunter his way, while Neymar had had his brains splattered all over the pillow by the psychotic comedian stalker.
Messi’s second goal came on 82 minutes. It was a superb striker’s goal, one that any player would be proud of – precise, delicate and beautiful as a Swiss watch. Coming from Messi it was completely mundane. Tick-tock. Yawn.
The Neymar hype machine has too much momentum to be halted by such a sobering wake-up call. ‘He is just a kid, playing in an inferior team,’ his fans will say. And they’ll be right. The Brazilian has rare talent, and appears to be improving by the game. He is also maturing at a satisfactory rate. Today we saw no signs of the petulant on-field persona that has blighted so many of his performances in the past. Such a battering at the feet of Barcelona will further dispel any sense of entitlement he may have built up in the rarified atmosphere of the Brazilian league.
Before the match Neymar had vowed to swap shirts with his Argentinian counterpart. After the final whistle, teary-eyed and shaky-voiced, he seemed too embarrassed to ask. He shouldn’t have been. “We learnt a football lesson here today,” he admitted. There is no shame in being handed a tutorial by a team like Barcelona, a player like Lionel Messi.
That the young Brazilian has immense potential is undeniable. Whether or not he ends his career as a legend alongside the likes of Pele, Maradona and Messi will depend on how much he is able to learn from days like this one.
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