Football has been blessed by a select number of transcendent stars.
An uncrowded pedestal atop the sport that’s featured the likes of Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, and in recent years, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo now awaits its newest members.
Messi and Ronaldo have desensitized a generation of fans and pundits when it comes to realistic expectations for modern footballing brilliance. Pairing longevity and consistency, the two immortals have carved out a spotlight that begs for a surrogate.
As the eternal rivals reach the later stages of their respective careers, there could be a pair currently plying their trade in France that could take up the mantle as the world’s very best.
When Neymar burst onto the international stage as an 18-year-old in 2010 with Brazilian behemoth Santos, the attacker gifted with equal parts pace and panache fit the profile of a player set to become a footballing deity.
Eight years on, and Neymar suddenly has company in the form of the 19-year-old Paris Saint-Germain teammate Kylian Mbappe. Neymar left Barcelona last summer on a world-record deal in hopes of escaping Messi’s shadow, and in doing so unpredictably found himself somewhat dimmed in Mbappe’s. One resembles the ostentatious, showy star who draws the ire of “traditionalists,” the other a humble and genial character who seems keen to let his play do the talking. Sound familiar?
Like Messi and Ronaldo’s early careers on the continent, Mbappe and Neymar appear as distinct personalities.
Messi, who emerged from Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy a timid character aided by growth hormones and partially obscured by a mod mop on the fringes of disorder, was the bashful figure to Ronaldo’s bulging bronze abs and often self-serving goal celebrations. The Argentine’s ordinary, if not scanty frame was one that the common fan could attain for, while Ronaldo’s pulsating physique was anything but. Aesthetically, the two stars could not have been more different, and the same applied on the pitch.
The generation’s greatest passer, Messi fit Barcelona’s tiki-taka ethos to a tee, slaloming in and out of trouble while negotiating the crampest of quarters and playing both provider and scorer. Like Messi, Ronaldo is a deft dribbler, but the Portuguese’s early career attempts at beating a defender were that of a showman driven to not only beat an opponent but embarrass him. Recall the Sporting CP and Manchester United version of Ronaldo as a brash star whose sometimes superfluous stepovers were the complete opposite of Messi’s resourceful and measured runs.
Like Messi, Mbappe has burst onto the scene a world-class talent whose shy reticence is one of a countless number of charms. The 19-year-old born in Parisian banlieue Bondy has already captured a quartet of domestic Ligue 1 honors to go with a starring role for France at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Courtesy of a brilliant showing at the quadrennial competition that saw the teen talent win Young Player of the Tournament – while making a legitimate case for Luka Modric’s Golden Ball distinction – Mbappe has become a household name. Doesn’t hurt that his prudent personality and infectious smile pair well with tales of living at Monaco’s training facility to paint the picture of an unassuming star.
In terms of playing styles, both Mbappe and Neymar are speedy attackers capable of excelling in wide areas whilst amounting to nightmare fuel for full-backs. They both play for Paris Saint-Germain, and alongside Uruguayan star Edinson Cavani, work well in unison to form arguably football’s most lethal three-headed monster.
The similarities end there. For Neymar, needless dummies and rainbow flicks became the calling card of an emerging talent whose game could benefit from some restraint. The 26-year-old has curbed that element of his skill set, though not entirely, opting for the showy rainbow flick against Costa Rica in added time with the World Cup group-stage clash hanging in the balance. Of course, Neymar would score minutes later to cement the 2-0 result.
Like their predecessors in footballing transcendence, character quirks can remind onlookers of the flaws of humankind. Messi and Ronaldo have both dealt with Spanish tax fraud cases tethered to image rights. The Argentine entered his 30s with bleached hair, a robust beard, and a particularly poor tattoo not fitting of a footballing idol.
Ronaldo’s once caustic image has also transformed – perhaps for the better. Formerly a brash, overconfident, and to some, unlikable character, notable charitable efforts, the mellowing influences of time, and the transparency of social media and an ever-growing family have attracted the 33-year-old to a new demographic of fans.
Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-2 victory at Nimes on the other side of the international break provided another ideal example of a player’s attitude and a penchant for change. Already on a yellow card, Mbappe was hacked down in the midfield by Teji Savanier in added time, and as quickly as the 19-year-old collapsed to the pitch courtesy of the chopping tackle, he leapt to his feet to knock Savanier from his. Both players were immediately shown red cards. “If I had the chance to do it over again, I would do the same thing,” Mbappe said immediately after the club’s fourth win to start the campaign.
While Mbappe was securing a three-match ban, Neymar made a child’s day, drawing tears of joy from a youngster who ran toward the touchline post-match. Neymar gifted the kid coincidentally sporting a Mbappe kit a second PSG strip, widely drawing the plaudits of a French media not exactly enamored with the player’s prior displays. Symbolism abound as Neymar responded to jeers from the Nimes faithful by celebrating scoring the opener in front of a banner calling the Brazilian as a crybaby. Unlike many of Neymar’s past incidents that have tread a precarious line, this reaction was perfect.
Neymar has carved a niche as a conflicted superstar, and some of it is self-inflicted. The rest comes down to luck. Mbappe could not have asked for a better World Cup. Comparatively, for Neymar, the near-insurmountable pressures of leading hosts Brazil into the 2014 installment before injury ruled him out of the shocking 7-1 dispatch against Germany set the table for a comparatively serene 2018 World Cup. It almost didn’t happen after ligament damage and metatarsal fractures suffered against Marseille in February threatened his World Cup. The theatrical rolling routine on the sidelines following Miguel Layun’s daft ankle-clipping kick against Mexico didn’t exactly help Neymar’s legacy, nor did the defeat to Belgium at the quarter-final stage.
Like Messi and Ronaldo, Mbappe and Neymar have experienced varying degrees of success on the international stage. World Cup outcomes attract stars to casual observers, where the fluid running and beaming smirk of Mbappe lifting the trophy endeared him to a new category of neutrals, much like Neymar’s dramatic simulations had the opposite effect.
Unlike Messi and Ronaldo, the notoriety and prestige of Mbappe and Neymar have yet to benefit from the allure of competition, where the two mythical stars were the principal players in celebrated El Clasico clashes and La Liga silverware pursuits. So long as Mbappe and Neymar line up for the same side, the fabled and fanciful Messi-Ronaldo relationship will have to wait, though there’s no reason to believe the PSG pairing won’t ascend to the mythical level of their predecessors.
In actuality, they don’t need to be the next Messi and Ronaldo; they can be the first Mbappe and Neymar, and football fans the world over will adore them for it.