First things first, because this is important and can’t be avoided: Lionel Messi is such a supremely gifted player that we may not see his likes again for multiple generations.
There might be someone close, or a handful of players we deem worthy of mention in the same breath as Messi, but none of them are likely to live up the Argentine’s lofty standards.
And let’s not forget: Lionel Messi is just 24-years old.
But let’s pretend, anyway. Let’s pretend that there’s a player out there in the world for whom the title “natural heir to Lionel Messi” makes even a little bit of sense.
You know about Neymar by now, don’t you? The Brazilian wunderkind with the funny hair and the multiple European suitors has already been anointed soccer’s next big thing.
He’s "Messi 2.0," a player with such silky touch and astounding goal-scoring abilities that he’ll shake the very foundation of Europe when he finally arrives. Or so we’re told. He’s certainly not doing anything in South America that would make anyone think otherwise.
Neymar already rules Brazil’s Serie A playing at Santos, and there’s not another contender for the throne in sight. Barcelona and Real Madrid have been in a bidding war for his services for so long it seems there never existed a time when Neymar’s transfer status wasn’t in the news.
He’s just 20.
When he finally does land on European shores, likely in Spain, it will come as a relief—both as the end of a long drawn-out saga and because we’ll finally have a chance to see Neymar do his thing on the biggest football stages in the world.
Then the direct comparisons, built on something more than Barcelona’s 4-0 dispatching of Santos in last year’s Club World Cup, will have some teeth.
The same things that make Messi such a joy to watch and an unbelievably successful player are evident in Neymar. The vision, the improvisation, the uncanny ability to dribble around and through players as if they’re frozen by magic. Both players possess close control that sometimes defies explanation. Or physics for that matter.
Messi is shorter than Neymar, but they both fall squarely in the realm of “small” players. While Messi’s stature gives him preternatural balance, Neymar’s extra height (helped a bit by his flamboyant hairstyle choices) makes him appear to glide. At speed. Very high speed.
Pure speed might be the one aspect in which Neymar has an advantage over Messi. Messi’s not slow, not by any means, but Neymar’s speed with the ball at his feet his among the best in the world. Think a 5’9”, 150 lbs., more elegant Cristiano Ronaldo.
For now, and until proven otherwise, Messi is beyond comparable, and that includes with the aforementioned Ronaldo. Neymar is a bundle of flash and potential, nothing more.
Messi made the move to Barcelona at age 13. He grew up at La Masia, absorbing the culture and style of Barcelona that has made the club the world’s best over the last five seasons. Once ready to leap from youth to senior professional, Messi faced no period of adjustment. The transition from one to the other was almost imperceptibly smooth.
That might not be the case with Neymar, and a possible reason to doubt his ability to become a player in the same stratosphere as Messi.
A move to Spain, whether it be to Real Madrid or Barcelona, will require Neymar to acclimate.
Not just to the play on the field, where he should have little trouble getting up to speed, but also to a new environment, culture, and set of pressures. Neymar is already 20, which while young, is beyond the age a player of his talent would typically make his debut in Spain.
Neymar’s move to Europe has already been put off several times. Perhaps Santos just wants to hold on to their star for as long as possible, but perhaps Neymar himself is anxious about leaving Brazil. It doesn’t hurt to mature in a comfortable setting, but doing so will lead to questions about his ability to handle the move emotionally.
If Neymar can handle the change in environment, there’s no reason he can’t be the natural heir to Messi (if such a thing is possible). If it’s Barcelona that lands him, it will be an inevitable and oft recurring discussions as the two geniuses play side-by-side.
If it’s Real Madrid that secures Neymar’s services, the tenor of the discussion will be different, one of comparing performances and hyping the El Clasico head-to-head match-ups. If Cristiano Ronaldo is still a member of Los Blancos at that point, the quickness with which he’ll be relegated to an afterthought will be stunning.
Lionel Messi is 24 and getting better. As long as he’s not going anywhere, there’s little reason to talk of his heir. Considering that it will probably takes years before his skills deteriorate to the point that he’s just a good—and not great—player, Messi’s actual heir could still be short of his teenage years.
But If we’re pretending that it might not take a generation, or two, or three, to find another Messi, then Neymar is the one. Mostly because we know what he can do, as opposed to whatever unknown pre-teen is growing up destined to be the next Messi, and Neymar is the closest thing there is to Messi-esque.
You know about Neymar, don’t you? He’s a little like Lionel Messi, only with funny hair. For the moment, let's just say he's Messi's natural heir.