Neymar must follow in footsteps of Messi, Ronaldo to become world beater
What do you suppose the odds were that the 2015 Ballon d'Or second- and third-place finishers would both be strikers, both be Portuguese speakers, would play in the same league, defend opposite sides of the Clasico divide and be born on exactly the same day, only seven years apart? Meet Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar: 32 and 25 respectively but sharing Feb. 5 as their birthday.
Millions to one? I'd say that was an odds-on bet. And do you think, then, that CR7 is a good barometer for where his Brazilian opponent is now in his life and career?
By the time Ronaldo was 25 -- at which point Neymar was 17 and three months away from making his professional debut for Santos -- he'd scored just 21 Champions League goals. It took him nearly 27 games in that competition to get off the mark. Which is really remarkable in retrospect.
I say "just" because in the seven years since, Ronaldo has gone on to become the all-time top scorer in that competition. And in reaching that mark, he's devastated the group scoring record, the single-season record and he's won the trophy twice more.
At 25, Neymar, having only debuted in the competition aged 21 -- compared to Ronaldo, who squared up against the Inter Milan of Javier Zanetti and Marco Materazzi aged just 17 -- has 19 goals in the world's elite club tournament. Not a bad return.
By 25, each of them had been champion of Europe once. Ronaldo, significantly, had already been a Ballon d'Or winner while Neymar has had to "make do" with a couple of fifth places and a bronze position (behind Lionel Messi and Ronaldo). By contrast, Neymar can boast both an Olympic silver medal and the universally coveted gold.
The echoes between the pair continue. When Ronaldo keenly wanted to join Real Madrid but was made to wait for a year by Sir Alex Ferguson, who was convinced that he and his Portuguese Man O'War could go out with a bang in the 2009 Champions League final vs. Barcelona in Rome, it was Ronaldo telling the Scot that it had always been his "dream" to play for Los Blancos that effectively broke the ice. The world-record transfer fee, and Ferguson's willingness to take even more money off Barcelona if their efforts to persuade Ronaldo to join them in 2010 had been successful, came later.
Something in what Ronaldo said about the famous lily-white football brand resonated with the legendary manager, a man who'd been at Hampden in 1960 to watch what was then, and remains now, a contender for the greatest professional match ever staged: Real Madrid 7-3 Eintracht Frankfurt.
Hard as nails in other matters, there's a streak of the romantic in Ferguson. Ronaldo was made to wait but he was ultimately allowed to go.
The slightly strange thing for these two Aquarians with the same birth date is that, although Neymar started from thousands of miles further away and was significantly younger, he also made it to Real Madrid first.
Spotted by Los Blancos' talent-trawlers in South America, he arrived at La Fabrica (as Madrid's youth system is known) just as the "Galactico" era up above it was grinding to a halt.
Neymar was there at a time when Real Madrid won their 2006 Copa semifinal second leg against Zaragoza 4-0 thanks to four different Brazilian scorers: Cicinho, Robinho, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. The only problem was that they'd lost the first game 6-1.
Madrid were also second in La Liga (by 12 points) to a Brazilian-inspired Barcelona led by Ronaldinho and eliminated from the Champions League before the quarterfinals by a wonderful, career-defining Thierry Henry goal for Arsenal.
Neymar was Real Madrid's Messi-equivalent back then, except that they weren't quite sure enough of his talents. His trial evaporated despite coaching enthusiasm, because of financial quibbles and because, quite understandably, it was very far from the norm at that time for even the most refined youth system to be able to convince the bean-counters at their club that a major investment in a skinny 14-year-old from another continent was the right way forward.
Remember how many times Barcelona almost blew the Messi-inheritance? How many times it seemed like only the tenuous grip of special men, like general manager Joan Lacueva or youth coordinator Charly Rexach, prevented Messi and his father giving up on their Camp Nou dream.
So Neymar and Real Madrid not quite "getting it together" when this will o' the wisp footballer was smaller and still more slender than now is something that, I'd argue, is easy to understand.
Of course the 25-year-old Neymar is dogged by that "adios" moment to this day. Madrid quickly realized their error and significantly before Barcelona made moves for him, they attempted to get him back -- at least once his "tyro" explosion from the age of 17 made it clear he'd matured into something special.
The incredibly convoluted way in which Barcelona signed Neymar, both the construction of the deal and the speed at which it was pushed through in order to thwart the avaricious Madrid president Florentino Perez, has been a major hindrance to the Brazilian striker and his company (read: Neymar Sr.) ever since. Investigation after investigation, court case after court case: semi-permanent accusations hanging over the whole affair.
And I think that in considering him at 25, it's worth raising the comparison with Ronaldo as well as the difficulties that followed Neymar's move from Santos to Barcelona.
If Neymar has been given great gifts -- athleticism, creativity, balance, technical mastery, a sense of huge adventure, a joy in entertaining and confidence, plus a father who played the game and who is still with him to support him (something of which Ronaldo was robbed) -- then it's only fair to consider what he's had to cope with.
Playing at his level, with such responsibility when constantly confronted with potential fines and proposed jail sentences, may seem commonplace simply because we read about it so often. But just for a second, imagine it was you or yours suffering that psychological strain. Could you excel in such conditions? Kudos to Neymar for doing so.
Kudos, too, for the fact that he copes well with what is an almost constant barrage of fouls. Not just fouls that constitute the "I genuinely got there as quickly as I could!" opposition protests. But the kind that are deliberate assaults to provoke or to slow him. It's my personal opinion that, as yet, he's under-protected by referees who will whistle for fouls but will be slow to book the offenders and show the bullies that they need to refrain.
Kudos, too, to the 25-year-old for coping and not retaliating.
It's another gift to him that Barca's front-line of "MSN" -- Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar -- has been assembled with his ability as a vital part of it. It's very, very rare that an attacking trio is united, plays in a 4-3-3 system, is compatible, doesn't suffer from immense mutual jealousy and functions via generosity and an "all for one" spirit.
Of course, the Juventus "tridente" of Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli springs to mind, while I've always been ultra-fascinated by the "Gre-No-Li" front line consisting of three Swedes -- Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm -- who ripped things up for AC Milan in the mid-1950s, as well as winning Olympic gold. But it's a beautiful rarity when three ultra-competitive forwards mesh and go through the gears.
So let's call that a gift to Neymar and to neutrals who love football played at the outer limits of verve and excitement. But it also represents a bane for the 25-year-old.
Born on the same day as Ronaldo, playing next to Messi. If there's a suspicion that Neymar might have grown up, in footballing terms, slightly more quickly than he has done, I'd say that's not a completely unreasonable claim. Xavi took time to emphasize just such a theme when he left Barcelona nearly two years ago, suggesting that his former teammate's skills meant that the kingdom was his to inherit. But that a whole tide of maturity needed to engulf him first.
However has it helped Neymar, given his background, age and attitude to football, that he's reached his "majority" in the era of Messi and Ronaldo?
I'm not convinced that it hasn't hindered him a little. I think that while the two heavyweight beasts have punched and counter-punched at the very summit of the game, there's been either conscious or sub-conscious temptation for Neymar to think: "I'll claim individual ground instead... I'll be the entertainer."
And damn good he is at that, too. But as he turns 25 and views what Ronaldo and Messi achieved from that age until now, what faces him is the demand that his already terrific career becomes a little more focused. A little more mature. A little more relentless. It's not just about scoring more goals, something he's recently talked about wanting to add, but more correct choices.
Aged 25, Neymar is rich, famous, talented and has already amassed more achievements than the majority of sportsmen or sportswomen attain in a full career. Kudos, again, to him for that. Yet there's much more available to him, and more for us to enjoy if he's smart enough to copy what it is that has made Messi and Ronaldo such winning machines.
Good decisions off the pitch, better decisions on it.
The eternal conundrum is "What do you give the man who has everything?"
Well, if I had it in my power I'd gift this likeable young man, this wonderfully talented athlete, this Pied Piper of the football pitch, the ability to say "I will determinedly, and relentlessly make, hour by hour and day by day, choices that will allow me to emulate the gargantuan achievements of the two guys whose careers have, and continue to, overshadowed mine since I came to Europe."
Happy birthday, fella. Make the next seven years even better than the last seven.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.