As age catches up with one of the greatest players of the modern generation, Lionel Messi, the debate continues as to who will occupy his pedestal in the global game, and will the successor to Messi be as good as Messi, or will he be better. There are designs of Neymar being touted as the next Messi-esque global icon of the beautiful game, but can the Brazilian be better than his club-mate?
Neymar, 23, has the world at his feet. He is often regarded as the third best player in the world currently behind Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in different quarters, and his treble haul of trophies with Barcelona last season were part of his just deserts after only arriving in Europe two summers ago. Neymar is, by no means, the finished article which leaves us with plenty room to analyse whether the Brazil captain can eclipse the greatness of Messi.
Statistically though, Neymar is well on his way to surpass Messi’s records for both club and country. Although it remains to be seen how long he stays a Barca player, his 42 goals for Brazil in just 59 caps is bordering on the phenomenal; the worn-out record of Pele’s 77 goals is under threat. Messi, in contrast, has scored only 49 international goals for Argentina, and it is only a matter of time before Neymar catches up with his Argentina counterpart.
While Neymar’s international exploits make for a better read, he has a lot more ground to cover on Messi in overall number of goals and the collection of individual honours. Messi has been setting all sorts of records from winning Ballon d’Ors to being La Liga’s all-time top goalscorer and scaling countless other similar achievements: a mountain for Neymar to climb.
But judging by his progress in a fledgling career thus far ever since he made his senior debut for Santos in 2009, he is clearly running a race he can win. With 205 goals in his first five years as a professional, Neymar’s goalscoring rate is actually better than Messi’s 125 in his early years. An extrapolation could see Neymar easily being more dominant than Messi, but that is only speculation at this moment rather than certainty.
Nevertheless, Neymar has built for himself a fine base upon which to start his ascent into the levels of greatness of Messi, and even beyond. Although it is fair to say Neymar has been part of a generation more unforgiving than what was around when Messi started which reflects glowingly on the Brazilian. Captaining his country at the age of 22 brings with it another dimension of pressure, Neymar is currently taking it all in his stride, things even Messi didn’t have to deal with at 22.
On emotional grounds, Neymar at his age has been through similar levels of pressure, if not more, to Messi, both at club level and for his country. While he didn’t play a single minute in the massacre of Belo Horizonte last summer, he will forever be part of the group which suffered the worst humiliation in Brazilian football history. The onus on him is to resurrect Brazil’s position as a domineering force in world football again which is no small responsibility.
Neymar can be as good as Messi is vivid even today, but can he become more than what Messi has managed to become in his career? The answer probably lies with time. Messi is still around being the alpha dog of world football and there is no limit for what he can achieve. A fifth Ballon d’Or is certainly coming next January for the Argentine, and at 28 now, he still has years ahead of him.
That makes it even more difficult for Neymar to scale the levels of Messi. Both Neymar and Messi will be around at the peak of their powers for the best part of the next few years, and the Brazilian’s supposed understudy role to the Argentine legend makes it difficult for him to impose his own authority on the game. Neymar has the tools, but does he have the right conditions to maximise his potential and reach the pinnacle?
Messi is a one of a kind player with equals of his unlikely to be unearthed anytime in the foreseeable future. Neymar, for all his worldly talents and talked-about potential, has a fairly long distance to cover to catch up with his Barcelona team-mate. He has done tremendously well to be part of this discussion, but whether or not he can be better than Messi depends on how well he handles himself as well as his responsibilities.
For now though, Neymar remains in Messi’s shadows. But should it ever happen that Neymar becomes better than Messi in time, we, the fans of the beautiful game, will be extremely privileged to witness another player of Messi’s ilk or better than him in such a short space of time. And there is proof enough to believe Neymar can, one day, go on to scale even greater heights than Messi.