FIFA World Cup: ‘Brothers’ Messi and Neymar are one match away from reuniting, this time as rivals on the football field.
Their fates intertwined, the two stalwarts bear the burden of two football-obsessed cultures via Barcelona and PSG.
The shadows of Lionel Messi and Neymar merge into each other, no matter how hard they try to keep them separate, like two giant trees inhabiting a rarefied footballing estate. With all nerves and doubts, Neymar joined Messi in Barcelona, and the Argentine put him at ease, forming one of the most lethal tridents this century with Luis Suarez. When Messi’s shadow became too long, or when Neymar assumed it did, he moved to PSG to flourish and branch out on his own. Four years later, they reunited at the Paris club, with Neymar playing the gracious host. “We are simply meant to be.” “I haven’t spent as much time with my family as I have with Leo,” the Brazilian admitted at the time.
Maybe they’re just meant to be. Messi is five years his senior to Neymar. When Neymar burst forth, he was already great on his way to becoming an all-time great. The Brazilian was never a rival, but rather an heir. It was how Barcelona wanted their fates to play out. Messi would leave in the autumn to make way for Neymar in the spring. But, like fate and destiny, human ambition and the desire for center stage, Barcelona’s best-written script did not come to fruition. However, their paths crossed again in Paris, casting long shadows over each other and sparking an irresistible chemistry.
In addition to countless hours of training and travel, the pair has now played in 200 matches, clocked 15,865 minutes, and scored 67 goals together. Their families spend vacations together and both refer to each other as brothers. It’s a story about bromance, but also about competition and the futility of drifting apart. Their stories are parallel but intertwined, with branches from one tree crawling into the other.
If both teams advance, Neymar and Messi would literally be pursuing each other’s shadows in the semifinals the following week, in what would be the most irresistible of showdowns, a fixture that squeezes in geographical, political, and linguistic tensions, apart from the fact that they are leading their respective teams into the quarterfinals, Brazil taking on Croatia and Argentina facing the Netherlands.
Both share the crushing burden that two football-crazed cultures have placed on them. Neymar hasn’t been carrying the load as long as Messi has. He has gone through the anguish of losing a championship, two quarterfinal exits, and the fallout of a round-of-16 exit. The Copa title served as atonement, and ever since then, the destiny thread dragging Messi toward the elusive World Cup in Doha has grown louder and more insistent.
At peace with himself
Messi appears to be at his calmest, yet feistiest, during the World Cup. As if he has passed through the rock of burden as if he is no longer obsessed with the World Cup or matching Maradona’s stature in Argentina. He is unconcerned with perceptions and legacies, failures and failings. As if all he wants to do is enjoy his final World Cup. He smiles more, chastises more, picks fights with defenders, and expresses both anger and joy more expressively. He appears to have descended from his enigmatic celestial bubble to Middle Earth. Argentina, while not spectacular, has produced moments; Messi has conjured moments. What appeared to be a burden now appears to be the fuel propelling Messi towards fulfilling his final wish on a football field. Enjoy what could be his final World Cup with the flicker that makes his halo a perfect circle.
However, Argentina’s fortunes are thrust upon his feet and shoulders. It’s just that the weight isn’t bothering him. The fate of Brazil, however, does not rest solely on Neymar. The hype machine did not whirr maniacally; he almost flew under the radar except for life-size illuminated silhouettes flickering on the Doha towers’ facades. His ankle injury was not mourned by the entire country. Brazil won a match despite his absence. It’s no longer just about Neymar; it’s about Neymar-dependencia. It has also been about Richarlison and Vinicius Junior, as well as Thiago Silva and Casemiro. It was about the Brazilian team’s collective dazzle rather than an individual sizzle, about dance and dribbles, bicycle kicks and pile drivers, about romance and flair.
The media’s, spectators, and even defenders’ obsession with him has liberated Neymar. He quietly enjoyed one of his best World Cup performances against South Korea, weaving and spinning, pirouetting and dancing between defenders and defense lines. That was not often the case in the past. He was so heavily fouled at the previous World Cup that he became overly conscious of being fouled. Neymar lost some of his Neymar-ness, becoming a more petulant figure. He’d dribble and twinkle past a slew of defenders before breaking, assuming the defender had made a mistake, such as a hasty tackle or a hideous shove. As a result, he was playing reactionary football, destroying both his own and his team’s game. The start-stop routines were so frequent that they confused his fellow frontmen, who were frequently caught off guard. Brazil has thus lost its coherence.
Bow and arrow
Neymar’s sense of self-importance has also subsided. He is no longer desperate for the Ballon d’Or, and instead of wanting the team to be built around him, he prefers to set up rather than score goals. There is a refreshing maturity about him; it may have always been there, but it is more noticeable now than ever before. “Neymar has matured a lot,” Tite says. Previously, when he was at Barcelona and in my early days with the Selecao, he was a winger who scored goals, had pace, dribbled, and did individual plays. Now he’s expanded the area in which he plays and, as well as being a goalscorer, he creates plays for others. He’s now a “bow and arrow” player, able to set things up and finish them off.”
Neymar began as a left winger, but under Messi’s tutelage at Barcelona, he evolved into one of the best inside playmakers. This is the fundamental characteristic that underpins his chemistry with Vinicius. Neymar would prowl and probe the inside left channel, drawing a couple of defenders and creating space for Vinicius to drift inwards without having to wade through too much traffic. One could also argue that Neymar inadvertently contributed to Messi’s playmaking abilities, as Messi dropped deeper into a playmaking role in order to harness the best of Neymar and Suarez at Barcelona.
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