x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Neymar: the pretender to Messi's throne

Neymar's crest looks like an elaborate antenna. Most of the time Messi looks as if the last time he used a comb was probably when his teacher admonished him before a class photo.

Lionel Messi could probably do with a new sparring partner at the summit of world football. When he collects his third Ballon d'Or as the game's finest, next month, he will again be joined on the podium by Cristiano Ronaldo, who has three times in the past four years been among the top three candidates, alongside Messi. Ronaldo is becoming conditioned to collecting silver or bronze.

Footballers play a team sport, but Messi-Ronaldo has become a man-for-man rivalry. Most weekends they strive to outscore one another against lesser opponents. And then, a few times a year, they measure up – as they did on the same field two Saturdays ago in Madrid – face to face, with Messi usually the victor.

Jealousy is mostly one way. Ronaldo is said to curse that his career has coincided with that of the amazing Argentine.

Tonight in Yokohama, a younger pretender squares up against Messi in the final of the Club World Cup. Neymar, according to Pele, who was once the world's greatest and is given to anointing possible successors to that status quite liberally, "could become as good as Messi".

In the environment of South American football, where Neymar has established his pre-eminence, Neymar is unchallenged as the continent's resident superstar. As Messi has not been resident in South America for a decade, that's not a status the Barcelona player has ever had.

These finals, which almost always are a collision between the European Cup winners and the holders of the Copa Libertadores, have a habit of reminding the rest of the world that South American football can be the equal of the more globally broadcast European club game, and suggesting that their stars are as a valuable as Europe's.

Ask Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach. He played for the 1992 Barca team against Sao Paulo in the final of what was then called the Intercontinental Cup.

The Brazilians won 2-1, thanks in large part to Rai, who would go on to decorate European club football and captain his country.

When Barcelona, as European champions, lost the 2006 Club World Cup to Brazil's Internacional, a young striker named Alexandre Pato, now of AC Milan, was on the winning side.

Neymar enters this evening's showdown a great deal more heralded than were either Rai or Pato. He is a camera-seeker, much more like a Cristiano Ronaldo than Messi is.

Just look at their hairstyles.

Neymar's crest, dyed blonde and gelled like an elaborate antenna, has become his visual trademark.

Most of the time Messi looks as if the last time he used a comb was probably when his primary school teacher admonished him before a beginning-of-term class photo.

Neymar seeks publicity. Publicity stalks a sometimes reluctant Messi. That's to do with their relative ages and the stages of their careers. Messi is Barcelona through and through, the symbol of the club who nurtured and then built their team around him.

Of Neymar, it has been expected since he was 15 that he would move to a European club. He has not yet done so. Real Madrid believed until three months ago he would join them next year. But he surprised them by announcing two months ago he had signed a contract extension with Santos that runs until 2014.

Neymar will be paid well for that commitment, from money raised from corporate sponsors interested in seeing Brazil's brightest hope remain in Brazil up until that country hosts the next World Cup. His high profile is, in turn, important to those sponsors. They like seeing his mohawk haircut recognised, his charisma and youth appeal well displayed, and they like him to score virtuoso goals like the one he contributed to Santos's semi-final victory over Kashiwa Reysol, the 3-1 win that put the Brazilians in today's final.

Muricy Ramalho, the Santos coach, does not mind if the audience wants to concentrate the Club World Cup final on two individuals.

"At the moment, Messi is the best player in the world," he said, "but by 2014, Neymar will be."

He agreed that both are eye-catching performers but argued that Neymar with the ball at his feet has more variety than Messi, more improvisation in his game, more twists and turns in the way he can slalom past defenders.

Might Ramalho be adding an excess of pressure to his starlet by inviting those comparisons?

"I thrive on pressure," Neymar said after the semi-final, before respectfully adding that his Santos would today face "the best team in the world". He added: "They say it's nearly impossible to beat Barcelona. So it's our 'Mission Impossible'; I want to be like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible."

There you have it: the aspiring film star against Messi, the man with a hold on the game's equivalent of the Oscars.