NEW YORK – Just a little football was enough. Brazil seems to have forgotten every ill that besieged its conscience in the run up to one of the most panned World Cup organisations in recent memory. As millions consummate their love for the beautiful game living through long nights and insufferable days, two young men are living under the lights, searching for the door to greatness.
Lionel Messi, who turns 27 this month, spearheads the Argentine campaign looking to try and take the World Cup to Buenos Aires for the first time since 1986. Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, only 22, is carrying the hopes of the host nation on his slender young shoulders.
The contrasts between the two men, who both play for Barcelona in the Spanish league, are stark and striking. Messi has played a central role in bringing the litany of silverware that floods the cabinets inside the Nou Camp. Neymar arrived at Barcelona under a cloud of controversy, but has shown enough magic to underline his much touted promise.
Messi is an established legend of the game; Neymar is still walking the trail seeking his promised destiny. An unprecedented four consecutive Ballon d’Ors sealed a legacy of greatness for the Argentine genius. But for all of his acclaimed brilliance for his beloved club, Messi has repeatedly struggled to replicate his form and finesse in his national colours.
The Argentine has captivated Catalonia and much of the world with his mesmerising brilliance for Barcelona. Often playing like a man possessed, Messi has woven magical threads around the wobbly feet of mesmerised defenders to spin prolific tales of success that reverberate across Spain.
But for all his success at his club, Messi has drawn a blank on the biggest stages while representing his country. Some might say – do we really need to question the credentials of a man who has scored 243 goals in 238 starts for Barcelona – many of them gems destined to sustain his legend for generations to come.
Unfortunately though, greatness does not come easy. Since gaining prominence with the U-20 World Cup in 2005, Messi and his compatriots have yet to win anything of international significance for their nation. It is an anomaly that needs to be remedied if Messi were to gain a measure of greatness that is associated with players such as Maradona and Pele.
Messi only has a couple of chances to try and gain a World Cup medal that could seal his place among the pantheon of truly great players that did well both for club and country. With this event on his continent, Messi has a chance to spur his team to World Cup glory and secure himself a place on the high table of football greatness.
Neymar is still a long way from being included in the conversation on greatness. But he also has a few more opportunities to try and win a World Cup, the definitive measure of success for a football player. However, the current edition offers him a great opportunity to try and accomplish the biggest honour at a young age.
The sprightly star has shown already that he can turn out an assured performance even under the weight of expectations from eager Brazilian fans. Neymar helped Brazil recover from an own goal against Croatia, with an ambitious left footed drive to draw even against a determined opponent. A second followed a little later, when he converted a penalty to get Brazil the result they needed to start the campaign on a positive note.
Messi will have his first test later today against Bosnia at the Maracana, a venue that holds plenty of historical significance for teams on the continent. Both men have big shoes to fill – Pele for Brazil and Maradona for Argentina have set the bar very high and emulating them in front of millions of probing eyes is going to be no mean task.
But that is exactly what is expected of these two players as they embark head long into a festival of definitive nature. Success in the coming weeks will allow Messi and Neymar to ascend a peak few men have managed to scale. It is the last chance either man will have for an opportunity at world cup glory on South American soil.
Watching them pursue this difficult climb up the highest mountain they will ever seek to ascend will be a fascinating experience. As the tournament ages, the pressure will mount. It will be an exhilarating experience, just to watch this expedition unfold right in front of our eyes as two of the finest players of this generation work with their teams to conquer the highest peak of the game.