The clamour over RealÔÇÖs new marquee signing, the ┬ú86 million Gareth Bale, has taken much of the spotlight away from Neymar but tomorrow all eyes will be on the Nou Camp as Barcelona meet Sevilla, and Neymar and Messi prepare to start in the same XI in a home league match for the first time. Will the dynamic duo set La Liga alight or get in each otherÔÇÖs way?
More worldly players than Neymar have struggled to fit in at a club renowned for their established hierarchies and strict dogmas about the way the team plays.
At 21, the new star is five years younger than Messi. He is a player who can genuinely be described as a potential heir to the Argentine and he has arrived at a watershed moment for the most admired club side of the past decade. His signing was completed very soon after Bar├ºa, European champions three times in the past eight years, suffered the chastening 7-0 aggregate defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final. The conspicuous feature of their impotence had been the unfit Messi, his mobility reduced when he was on the field, a gap left when he was not, evidence Barcelona had become dependent on one man.
Neymar represents a soothing solution should Bar├ºa be denied the services of Messi, whose appetite for playing 90 minutes whatever the fixture, whatever his health, is voracious. But that is not why Neymar has been invited to the Nou Camp. It is more as a stimulus and a complement to Messi, to offer alternatives to a team dogmatically committed to their pass-and-move ideology even if they have become predictable and blunted when Messi is heavily policed.
The challenge for any newcomer at the modern Bar├ºa, MessiÔÇÖs Bar├ºa, is about tactics as well as status. Most of MessiÔÇÖs colleagues are hard-wired to appreciate his territory on the pitch, to be its curators. Players like Gerard Piqu├® and Cesc Fabregas have a sixth sense of how he operates, where he likes the ball, when and where they can expect to receive it back. They started playing in teams with Messi when they were barely out of their teens, contemporaries at Bar├ºaÔÇÖs La Masia academy. They still cherish him with some of the protective instincts they showed to little Leo, the timid, tiny enigma fresh from Argentina, undergoing treatment for a growth hormone deficiency, a boy whose legs dangled from the bench of the dugouts because he was so small.
He scored goals then, at junior levels, at a surreal rate. He started doing so in BarcelonaÔÇÖs first-team as his territory and influence on the pitch expanded and alliances with La Masia graduates Xavi, Andr├®s Iniesta, Fabregas, Sergio Busquets and Pedro Rodr├¡guez, became the hub of BarcelonaÔÇÖs strategy.
Messi had first established himself, precociously, as a winger, first on the left, his stronger foot, and then on the right of their default 4-3-3. He then lobbied Pep Guardiola, the coach under whom he flourished most, for a more central role.
Guardiola listened. Messi scored 248 club goals in four years. But Neymar will also be wise to the numerous episodes of resentment felt by other players, most of them like him, high-profile signings who felt the backwash of MessiÔÇÖs gathering brilliance as something uncomfortable.
Neymar will certainly be aware of Johan CruyffÔÇÖs observation, made shortly after the Brazilian signed, about the Messi-Neymar combination. ÔÇ£A ship with two captains can be a problem,ÔÇØ said Cruyff, a former Barcelona player and coach whose critical comments are still heard like air-raid sirens for many Barcelonistas. Neymar may likewise have been made aware of Zlatan IbrahimovicÔÇÖs rage in the second half of the season he spent at Barcelona as their record signing, a rage born, Ibrahimovic would record in his autobiography, of MessiÔÇÖs status in the hierarchy.
ÔÇ£Messi is awesome, the play revolves around him, which is natural really,ÔÇØ Ibrahimovic wrote. ÔÇ£But I had come, and was scoring more than he did. He went to Guardiola and said: ÔÇÿI donÔÇÖt want to play on the wing any more. I want to be in the middle.ÔÇÖ That was where I was. But Guardiola has to listen to him, and he adapted the team for one guy. I was sacrificed.ÔÇØ
Ibrahimovic, sold to AC Milan, would be deemed an acceptable sacrifice, even if the club made a loss of over ┬ú34ÔÇëmillion in 12 months on his transfer fee. During his final months at Barca, the Swedish maverick found an ally in Thierry Henry. HenryÔÇÖs time in the Bar├ºa forward line with Messi had some notable peaks, like a starring role in a 6-2 win over Madrid at the Bernab├®u, and a Champions League triumph in Rome, but the Frenchman wore a long face much of the time. His complaint that ÔÇ£IÔÇÖm just the guy stuck out on the left wing,ÔÇØ became something of a chorus in his first season, which was when Messi began to start thinking of the right wing as a launch pad for his greater influence, rather than a permanent address.
For Ibrahimovic and Henry, life at the Nou Camp seemed bewildering, and lonely. Ibrahimovic, a career nonconformist, found the corporate loyalty of the La Masia graduates who made up the majority of the squad irritating and cliquey. ÔÇ£They are like schoolboys, who just nod,ÔÇØ he said, though the capacity of the apparently diffident, unassuming Messi not just to nod, but pushily ask his coach to explore a new role for him, evidently rankled more.
Samuel EtoÔÇÖo, the best centre-forward at the club before Messi turned into an exemplary ÔÇÿfalse NoÔÇë9ÔÇÖ, had his moments of status envy. He felt he was not given the indulgences that were automatically afforded to Messi. EtoÔÇÖo, like Ronaldinho before him, would be encouraged to leave once MessiÔÇÖs brilliance made him seem dispensable.
In their wake came Henry, Ibrahimovic and David Villa, the Spain striker who joined Barcelona from Valencia in 2010 and has just left for Atl├®tico Madrid. They coincided as Bar├ºa players with a golden era for La Masia, its apotheosis the moment last season when, with the Brazilian full-back Dani Alves injured, Barcelona had 11 of their academy alumni on the field.
The club have a long, proud history of producing great footballers, but a limited one in unearthing great goalscorers.
ÔÇ£ThatÔÇÖs another aspect of why Messi is so unique,ÔÇØ says Oscar Garc├¡a, the former Barcelona striker who coached the youth team until 2012 and now manages Brighton. ÔÇ£The tradition used to be that the style of play was set by the La Masia midfielders but then big stars were bought in up front. When I was there I had to fight for a place with Romario and Hristo Stoichkov.ÔÇØ
The Romario tradition helped to attract Neymar to Barcelona, the latest in a line of emblematic Brazilians. It runs through the young and lithe Ronaldo, at Bobby RobsonÔÇÖs Bar├ºa, to Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and the dashing Alves. It is a seam almost as cherished by supporters as the home-grown talents.
That historical fondness for Brazilian talent is a plus for Neymar. Sandro Rosell, the club president, acknowledges La Masia cannot always be so productive. For the first time in five years, Barcelona are coached by someone whose education in the game was not at their own academy. Like Neymar, he is a South American, new to European football. Like Neymar, the Argentinian Gerardo Martino has shown appropriate humility on arrival, and an appreciation of the seasonÔÇÖs big issue, the yin and yang of Neymar and Messi. ÔÇ£If they donÔÇÖt work well together, it will be the coachÔÇÖs responsibility,ÔÇØ said Martino. He started the pair in the same XI for the first time in La Liga away at Valencia 12 days ago, and felt encouraged. ÔÇ£We were a bit worried because in the Super Cup [against Atl├®tico] they hadnÔÇÖt shown so much connection. But within 24 hours they had sorted it out themselves.ÔÇØ
Against Valencia, Neymar set up a goal in the 3-2 win, the third of MessiÔÇÖs hat-trick. ÔÇ£I felt I should ask him for his autograph after the game,ÔÇØ joked Martino. Naturally, he was talking not about Neymar but Messi, the commander-in-chief of the Nou Camp.