A sports writer recently suggested that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s unfair hegemony in La Liga was setting themselves up for the same fate that befell Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. The idea was that clubs that continued to widen the gap between themselves and the opposition through artificial means, such as the two Spanish giants’ practice of negotiating their own TV rights rather than agreeing to a shared pool, were diluting the quality of the rest of the league to their own detriment. Competition breeds excellence, and the lack of it for Rangers and Celtic transformed two previously regular participants in the Champions League into no more than big fish in a tiny pond, unable to compete at the highest level for lack of practice with quality opponents.
While it may be too much of a stretch to argue that La Liga’s dwindling quality will have the same corrosive effect on Madrid and Barca, whose traditions at the top of the game are well-ingrained over decades (although both did suffer surprising losses in last season’s CL to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively), it did illustrate a valid point. Players and teams need to expose themselves to the most competitive leagues to grow and nurture their talent. Part of what makes the artificial gap PSG are about to open up on the rest of the French League so worrying is the potentially stunting effect that regularly turning out against diminished opposition will have on the development of young starlets like Thiago Silva and Javier Pastore. It is also something that might be beginning to bear down on Neymar, the most eagerly anticipated of the clutch of young players on the verge of making their breakthrough.
Neymar’s continuing determination to ply his trade in Brazil until after the 2014 World Cup has the ability to both slow his development at a critical stage and severely hamper Brazil’s chances of lifting the trophy on home soil. There were patches in the Olympic final against Mexico on Saturday when it appeared that the prodigy’s training in Brazil had not equipped him with the knowledge to deal with several defenders instantly closing space around him and suffocating his movement. In the last ten minutes, three runs he attempted at the massed Mexican ranks resulted in the ball cannoning back off them and behind him, as his tricks failed to bewitch defenders who had probably had the opportunity to watch him in carefully prepared training videos beforehand. It is this kind of elite, tactically informed opposition comprising the ranks of international and European football that Neymar is missing the chance to grow against in Brazil, and for which he only has a parsimonious international calendar left to prepare him for in the run-up to 2014.
However Neymar’s obligations in becoming the world’s best player go beyond simply honing his talent in the most competitive leagues in Europe, and thereby becoming a player who scores match-winning goals for both club and country in crucial competitions. Goals can be scored by any great player, and Cristiano Ronaldo is perched atop the best of the rest in this regard. Yet in four consistently wondrous years at Barcelona, Lionel Messi has set the bar higher than that. Beyond the staggering number of goals scored and assists made, what really thrills about Messi is observing how he speeds and flies past tactically educated European defences who have learnt his moves by rote in the most sophisticated pre-match instructions available and are still powerless to halt him. Knowing how effective European leagues are at turning games into tactical battles designed to negate a forward’s natural ability, and then seeing Messi take all of the twenty-two men on the field back to the playground with moves that should only exist on PlayStation and in a child’s imagination is perhaps the closest thing to surreal that sport has to offer.
There is perhaps some truth to be had in the argument that Messi’s genius is unlocked by Barcelona’s unique ability to retain possession in threatening areas and create space for him to launch his unique runs at defences. However, the fact remains that there is not a single footballer from South America playing in Europe today that has managed to retain, let alone polish, the fantastical magic of how they play the game in that continent to the extent that Messi has done. For Neymar, it is the challenge of representing and demonstrating the limitless magic of South America’s game at the highest level of competition to at least the same extent that Messi has done that now awaits him in his anointing as crown prince.