The Most Fascinating Relationship in Sports: Will Messi and Neymar Play Well Together?

The stadium scene.
Aug. 28 2013 12:53 PM

Messi and Neymar

Will the world’s greatest player and Barcelona’s new prodigy play well together?

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Barcelona don't play many high crosses; it's too much like pinball. In their system, the wingers act as decoys. By staying close to the sideline, they force the defenders to spread across the width of the field, and that creates space inside for Messi to play.

Teamwork implies self-sacrifice. Most of the self-sacrifice in Barcelona's team is done by the wingers. It takes discipline to stay on the edge of the game when instinct tells you to rush into the thick of it. It takes humility to sweat in an invisible cause, knowing that your most likely reward will be to hear the crowd sing the names of your teammates.

It's not that Barcelona's wingers are necessarily water-carriers, but you sense that if there ever was water to be carried, Pedro would jump up and take two loads so that Messi could save his legs.

Now, this will be Neymar's role. As Giovanni Trapattoni says, "There are some players who sing, and some who carry the cross." It looks like Barcelona just hired Mick Jagger to walk the road to Calvary.

Unless someone is planning a major rethink.

* * *

Sandro Rosell has been Barcelona’s president since 2010, and for him the signing of Neymar was the fulfilment of a dream. European club presidents battle constantly for status, and the market for superstars is their own little Champions League. Neymar joining Barcelona was a black eye for Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, and a feather in Rosell’s cap. And this time, Rosell would get all the credit he deserved. 

Neymar was not the first Brazilian superstar Rosell had brought to Barcelona. Ten years ago, Rosell was a Barcelona vice president in the administration of Joan Laporta. That summer, the contacts he had developed in his previous career as an executive with Nike enabled Barcelona to beat out Manchester United to sign Ronaldinho. 

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Laporta and Rosell were from the opposites-attract school of political duos. Laporta is a charismatic charmer, a showman and back-slapper, a broad-brushstrokes, big-picture kind of guy. Rosell is a backroom type—serious, intense, a details man. If Laporta was the pretty face of the board, Rosell considered himself the brains. 

The stresses of running the club soon strained the relationship. The brains began to brood that the face was taking too much of the credit. The face talked about democracy but seemed to think it was running the whole show.

Ronaldinho—Rosell’s signing—would twice be voted FIFA World Player of the Year. In 2006 he inspired Barcelona to their second Champions League title. But Rosell wasn’t there to share in the glory, because he’d quit the board in the summer of 2005, after falling out with Laporta.

In 2010, Laporta had to step down upon the expiration of his second term in office, and Rosell’s long exile ended as he was elected club president with 61 percent of the vote. The two men now hurl insults at each other, with Rosell accusing Laporta of wrecking the club’s finances with irresponsible management and Laporta calling Rosell neurotic, immature, and undignified. 

It all sounds like so much squawking in the henhouse, but Barcelona’s future rests on the outcome of the Rosell-Laporta feud. And that future depends on whether the club cuts itself off from its past.

* * *

"Football consists of different elements: technique, tactics, and stamina. Stamina I have, tactics I have, and technique I've always had. There are some people who might have better technique than me, and some may be fitter than me, but the main thing is tactics. With most players, tactics are missing. You can divide tactics into insight, trust, and daring. In the tactical area, I think I just have more than most other players. You probably can't teach personal tactical insight. At most, if a person has some, you can perhaps influence it a little bit. It's very hard."Johan Cruyff, 1974 

"Johan is so technically perfect that even as a boy he stopped being interested in that aspect of the game. He could do everything when he was 20. That's why he's been very interested in tactics since he was very young. He sees football situations so clearly that he was always the one to decide how the game should be played."—Marco van Basten, 1987

"Johann Cruyff once told me that he thought I would go and play in a big league, with a big club, and to remember that the best players play in the middle."—Jan Molby, 2007

UEFA president Michel Platini during the UEFA Europa League final football match, May 2013.
Johan Cruyff in 2011.

Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

Johan Cruyff is the most influential individual in European football history. What sets Cruyff above other great footballers is that his influence continued to grow after he stopped playing. You could argue that in his varying incarnations as player, coach, stylistic architect, and power behind the throne, Cruyff can take credit for eight European Cup wins: four each at Ajax and Barcelona. That gives him a personal tally just one less than the record held by Real Madrid.

On the field, Cruyff helped Barcelona win the league title in 1974. From the dugout, he led them to their first European Cup in 1992, and imprinted on them the style of play that has become their trademark: attacking football, using quick, short passes, usually in a 4-3-3 formation. When he hasn’t been directly employed by the club, he has lectured them through the media. There have been times when the club hasn’t wanted to know. Cruyff didn’t get on with Josep Lluís Núñez, the club president from 1976 to 2000. He didn’t have much influence over Nunez’s successor Joan Gaspart either. When Laporta came to power in 2003, Cruyff at last had the presidential ear. 

Laporta appointed only two coaches in his seven years as president. Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola had both been key players in teams managed by Cruyff, Rijkaard at Ajax in the 1980s and Guardiola at Barcelona in the 1990s. Neither had previously distinguished themselves as coaches. It was Cruyff’s insistence that these men shared his privileged level of insight that persuaded Laporta to hire them, and to back them in the face of initial skepticism. Both would lead Barcelona to brilliant success.

In the final months of his regime, Laporta bestowed on Cruyff the title of honorary president-for-life. One of Rosell’s first actions as president was to propose a motion to revoke that honor. Cruyff renounced his title before Rosell’s board could take it from him.  

Cruyff was now outside the tent. What he has been doing there would have come as no surprise to Lyndon Johnson. 

* * *

Sandro Rosell talks about a lot about “Barca DNA.” A great deal of wishful thinking is embedded in the phrase. The implication is that Barcelona's superiority is somehow hardwired, when there is nothing hardwired about it. The Barcelona system is not a biochemical code that could survive locked in amber for centuries. It’s a culture, a set of ideas that are learned and passed on. It’s nothing more permanent than that. 

Throughout their history Barcelona have been animated by other ideas, but this is the only one that has worked. Each of their four Champions League titles has been won with either Cruyff or one of his protégées in the dugout. Now Cruyff is out in the cold, and Rosell has even fallen out with Guardiola. 

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New coach Gerardo Martino (R) with Barcelona's President Sandro Rosell (L) on July 26

Photo by Quique Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

Those feuds are not the only reasons why many Barca supporters regard Rosell’s regime with unease. Rosell has sold the shirt to sponsors and festooned the outer walls of the stadium with gigantic advertisements. He has imposed strict conditions on who can apply for club membership. He has angered some players by declining to renew the contract of Eric Abidal shortly after the player had recovered from a liver transplant. Rosell said: “We treated him as a footballer, not someone who was ill, because that is what he asked of us.” Whether in tribute or protest, Dani Alves now wears Abidal's old number 22.

Into this house divided walks the beaming figure of Neymar, the choice of an increasingly unpopular president. Cruyff, as ever, has not hesitated to venture an opinion.

"I wouldn't put two captains on the same ship," Cruyff told the sports paper Marca in May. A short time later, he added: "With Neymar on board, I would have planned for the possibility of selling Messi."

The headlines were variations on the theme of "Cruyff says Barcelona should sell Messi." In fact, he said categorically: "I wouldn't have signed Neymar." The comment about Messi was meant to illustrate a hypothetical: The only situation in which Cruyff would have signed Neymar would be one in which he was already planning to sell Messi. Was that what Rosell and his board were thinking?

Around Messi, old certainties are dissolving. Guardiola has left for Munich. Xavi is getting old. The team was destroyed in the European semifinals by FC Bayern and is lacking in defensive power and depth. Instead of reinforcing the obvious weaknesses, the club president has signed a young attacking superstar who could scarcely be more different from Messi if he had been born in a different century, on another planet.

Neymar wouldn't be a real superstar if he didn't want to encroach on Messi's central turf. After all, the best players play in the middle. Do Barcelona reconfigure the formation to get Neymar into the center alongside Messi? Even if Messi didn’t feel threatened, wouldn’t it be a rather radical step to change a winning system for the sake of one player?

An additional complicating factor: Messi and Neymar just so happen to be the biggest players for the national teams of Argentina and Brazil, and their relationship will be dramatized against the hysterical media noise of the buildup to next summer's World Cup in Brazil. And consider also the unique pressure created by Messi's greatness. In the last four seasons he has scored 47, 53, 73 and 60 goals. If he scores only 30 this time, some people will shake their heads and say, well, he was good while he lasted. Others will look at Neymar, and wonder if his introduction has sent Messi into decline. If there are problems, whose side will Rosell and the board take?

Already natural opposites in so many ways—Brazil vs. Argentina, Nike vs. Adidas, selfies vs. the Pope—Neymar and Messi, through no fault of their own, have come to symbolize the division within Barcelona itself: Rosell vs. the Cruyffians. Will the club be big enough for both of them? If Messi flags, it damages the team. If Neymar flops, it damages the club president.

It seems impossible that Barcelona might already be considering the future beyond Messi. And yet, as Messi himself keeps showing us, in football anything is possible.

Correction, Aug. 29, 2013: Due to a production error, a photo of Michel Platini was mistakenly identified as Johann Cruyff. The correct photo has been substituted.

Ken Early works for the Second Captains podcast and the Irish Times. Follow him on Twitter.