Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Messi and Neymar

Great article in Slate about this season's pairing of Lionel Messi of Argentina, the greatest footballer I've ever seen play, and up-and-coming Brazilian superstar Neymar da Silva Santos, the most exiting new footballer of the last several years: Messi and Neymar: Will the world’s greatest player and Barcelona’s new prodigy play well together?.

Messi is adored not only for his brilliance and his results, but also for his dedication and focus:

Messi plays the kind of football that only other masters can fully appreciate. It's not simply that he's technically brilliant, with bullish strength packed into a compact frame and instant, insectlike reactions. Perfection in possession is just the beginning. Messi is also the best player in the world during the 98 percent of the game when he doesn't have the ball.

That doesn't mean he runs a lot. His central role at Barcelona allows him to stay close to the box, so he rarely has to dart more than 20 meters at a time. While others chase, Messi lurks, saving his energy for the decisive moments.

No such moment ever catches him off guard. He's in a sustained flow state that nothing can disturb (except, perhaps, a teammate hesitating a little too long over a pass). In that trance he thinks too fast for his opponents to keep up. He doesn't respond to provocation, and he doesn't play to the crowd.

And, of course, the very best thing about Messi, as Slate points out: Leo Messi Never Dives.

Neymar, meanwhile, is the best football player in Brazil, which is of course the best country at football in the world.

At 21, Neymar has already scored 161 goals for Santos, Brazil, and now Barcelona. It's a phenomenal number: twice as many as Romario had scored at the same age, and three times as many as the 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.

Neymar, the prodigy, is also ahead of where Messi was at 21. He has played with successful teams, winning his state championship, his continental championship, and most recently the Confederations Cup with Brazil. He was named best individual player at that tournament, adding to a hoard of individual awards: top scorer in Brazil, Brazilian player of the year, twice South American player of the year, FIFA's Puskás Award for the best goal scored anywhere in the world in 2011, a finalist for that same award in 2012.

I've only been lucky enough to watch Neymar play a handful of times, most recently in the 2013 Confederations Cup, the warm-up tournament for next year's World Cup.

In the games I've seen, Neymar's play has been astonishing. Not only is he markedly faster than the other players on the field (no simple matter in a sport populated by the fastest runners on the earth), but his balance, agility, and power while on the ball are remarkable. Just watch as he leaves the best professional footballers on the planet lying on the ground, contorted and collapsed in disarray from trying to stop him.

Stop, start, weave, bob, SLAM!

What will it be like to have these two on the field together? Will they be able to play together? Or, as Slate wonders, will they clash and fail to mesh?

I know I'll be watching and waiting to see!

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