THE leading European leagues might provide financial security, and the Champions League might offer a high-profile platform on which the world’s best players can display their talents, but when it comes to bestowing footballing greatness, the World Cup remains the one tournament with the power to create a reputation that will last through the ages.
The very best World Cups tend to be immediately associated with one name, a figure whose footballing genius allows them to make the tournament their own.
Sweden, 1958, as Brazil won the first of their five World Cup trophies? Pele, with all of his youthful exuberance. Mexico 86, as Argentina thrilled thanks to their attacking football? Diego Maradona. France 98, as the hosts swept all before them? Zinedine Zidane.
The hope was that this year’s tournament would feature a world-class star with the talent and character to drive their side to glory. The reality is that with the knockout stages still to come, there are two such players battling for a place in the history books.
This has been the tournament of both Neymar and Lionel Messi so far, with both players producing moments of jaw-dropping brilliance to elevate their respective sides above the prosaic and ensure they would move out of the group stage with their unbeaten records and status as tournament favourites intact.
Both players have scored four goals; both have received limited assistance from their team-mates. While other nations have relied on the team ethic to bring them success – think Costa Rica with their unquenchable energy, Colombia with their multi-pronged attack or Germany with their fluent midfield – Brazil and Argentina have been hugely reliant on their respective game changers. At no stage have they been found wanting.
Neymar’s success has been marginally the more notable, partly because the 22-year-old Barcelona striker has not previously received the same personal plaudits as Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, who tend to corner the market for the ‘Best Player in the World’ awards, and partly because it is impossible to overestimate the weight of expectation that is resting on his shoulders as he tackles a home World Cup.
As a number of leading national journalists picked over the bones of England’s limp World Cup exit earlier this week, they claimed that no one else is Brazil is saddled with the same kind of pressure as the highest-profile members of Roy Hodgson’s squad.
Nonsense. The demands made of a Wayne Rooney or a Steven Gerrard are nothing compared to the baggage that Neymar carries with him every time he walks on to the field in the gold of his national side.
Not only is he responsible for the hopes and dreams of more than 200m people, he is also single-handedly charged with the task of justifying the staging of a tournament that has led to violent protests in a number of Brazilian cities.
Having spoken to some friends who are out in Brazil, they claim that in the cities they have visited, it is impossible to walk more than 200 yards without seeing a picture of Neymar, whether it be on a billboard, magazine, poster or one of the thousands of knock-off T-shirts that are being eagerly snapped up by Brazilians and overseas supporters alike. No pressure to perform there then.
To make Neymar’s task as Brazil’s talisman even harder, he is surrounded by a group of players whose limitations are being repeatedly exposed.
The Brazilian back four defended abysmally in the group stage, the midfield is functional at best, and in Fred, Luiz Felipe Scolari is relying on a centre-forward who would not look out of place in the Championship.
Yet thanks to his two goals in the opening game against Croatia, and his two even better strikes in the 4-1 win over Cameroon, Neymar ensured that Brazil topped Group A and continued to captivate a nation. One shudders to think what on earth they would have been like without him.
The same is true of Argentina and Messi, and while the four-time World Player of the Year might not be responsible for the hopes of a home country – although Argentina’s relative geographical proximity means their matches in Brazil effectively feel like home games – he nevertheless entered this tournament with plenty to prove.
In his eight World Cup matches prior to this summer, he had scored one goal, and even that came in the non-event of a 6-0 thrashing of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006.
His personal struggles in 2010 in particular were an unsightly stain on an otherwise impeccable record, and at the age of 27, in his native South America, this was always going to be his one chance to put things right. Three games in, and no one is going to be describing Messi as a World Cup flop anymore.
He has scored in all three of Argentina’s matches to date, with each goal providing proof of his genius. Three of the four goals have been virtuoso individual strikes, all of which came from outside the penalty area, and all carried the stamp of a player whose ability to fashion something from nothing knows no bounds.
Like Neymar, Messi has risen above the relative mediocrity of those around him. Argentina did not get anywhere close to top form in their group matches, with the likes of Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain all misfiring, yet any collective underachievement was ignored in the justified rush to applaud Messi.
Great players have the ability to do that, to disguise collective shortcomings and make the course of a tournament bend to their will.
Both Neymar and Messi have achieved that so far, but as the knockout stage begins, one will have to fall by the wayside before the World Cup champions are crowned in the middle of next month.
Messi’s second-round task should be easier, with Argentina’s opponents, Switzerland, seemingly inferior to the Chile side that will take on Brazil, and Argentina’s route through both the quarter-final and semi-final looks more inviting, with Belgium and Holland potentially standing in their way as opposed to Colombia and Germany, who could line up against Brazil.
Intriguingly, however, there is no way the two South American giants can meet before the final. Messi vs Neymar in the Maracana for a place in World Cup folklore. A tournament that has already scaled remarkable heights in terms of drama and excitement could be set for the most unforgettable of finishes.