For the past four years or so, the big media “debate” has been whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the better player. It’s not a battle that the players have participated in (Messi couldn’t care less), yet it has been argued around the world. The truth though is that except for Real Madrid (club and fans), its mouthpieces Marca and AS, certain segments of the British media, some random idiots who refuse to accept reality, and the nation of Portugal, the Messi/Ronaldo debate was decisively settled last season–perhaps earlier. The truth is that the Messi v. Ronaldo comparisons tend to come out only around Los Clásicos and then sink away again. During the rest of the year, the majority of the world accepts the fact that Messi is the superior player who will go down in history as one of the all-time greats.
In Brazil, the press has completely forgotten about Cristiano Ronaldo. In Brazil they have no time for Cristiano Ronaldo because in Brazil, they have Neymar. The Brazilian press knows Messi is the best player in the world; in a fit of nationalist pique they propped up their own starlet and turned him into something that he is not. Pele, that shameless hack, has given his imprimatur to the charade by declaring that Neymar is better than Messi. However, while a football ignorant audience that doesn’t know any better and a Brazilian audience that wants to delude itself may accept Pele’s pronouncements at face value, the rest of the world knows that Pele cannot be trusted. if he tells you the sky is blue, check for yourself (or as Sid Lowe so succinctly, eloquently, and accurately put it on The Guardian‘s December 15, 2011 Football Weekly podcast “Pele doesn’t know shit!”).
The Brazilian obsession with Neymar is so packed with psychological baggage, that it would take a Ministry of Therapy to sort it out, and none of it has to do with him being actually better than Messi. (Whether or not Santos wins this weekend, Barcelona is still the best team in the world. Sorry.) I’ll try to unpack the baggage a little, but I make no promises about being comprehensive.
First, Neymar is a teenage phenomenon from Santos–Pele’s club! Every Santos teenager who could kick a ball anywhere near a net has been tagged with the “next Pele” label, but Neymar spearheaded his team to a Copa Libertadores win, which only compounds the pressure.
Second, Brazil, still thinking it is the world’s greatest footballing nation, desperately wants the world’s top player to be a Brazilian. Ronaldinho squandered his ability in spectacular fashion, Kaka was always a stopgap measure, and Robinho never lived up to his promise. Ronaldo ain’t coming back.
Third, Neymar plays in Brazil, and this cannot be underestimated. Brazilians feel deeply insecure that their league is second-tier behind Europe. The fans demand their players go abroad but then resent them for leaving (calls for an only home-based national team surface every World Cup.) The Club World Cup means so much to them–more, I would wager, than the Copa Libertadores–because their best gets to play the best from Europe. Brazil’s league has gotten stronger in the last few years, but it is nowhere near Western Europe. Santos may be able to keep Neymar and Paolo Henrique Ganso for now, but that won’t last forever. If those two players want to be considered among the elite, they need to play in Europe. They know it, and so do the Brazilian fans in their heart of hearts.
Finally, Messi is Argentinian. It eats into the souls of Brazilian fans that the best player in the world is a native son of their national team’s greatest rival. Messi v. Neymar is a replay of the tedious Pele v. Maradona arguments that have plagued the sport and continue to do so. The difference though is that Pele/Maradona is a legitimate argument (sort of) whereas Messi/Neymar is not.
For all these reasons, Neymar has been propped up to levels that he hasn’t merited. Whatever he may be, and he has the talent, he is that not now. He is untested at the highest level, i.e. a competition where a better class of defenders will get in his face and where the referee will not award him a foul every time he throws himself on the ground. His deification is a sign of Brazilian insecurity, arrogance, and nationalism mixed together, and the European media has fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.
The Club World Cup will not make Neymar the best player in the world. In four years or so we can reevaluate his position. Until then, he is a terrific footballer, and a worldwide brand in the making. But he is not Messi.