AC Milan’s young prodigy, Stephan El Shaarawy, and Santos superstar Neymar are two players of a similar age, position, quality, technique and haircut, but which of the duo has the more potential and why?
That is the question we at Bleacher Report will try to answer by examining their careers to date in four different categories: their domestic and international achievements, their playing styles and what those in the know have had to say on this matter, before coming to our conclusion.
However, first up here’s some background information on this eye-catching pair who, at present, are lighting up Planet Football with their vast array of skills…
Name: Stephan El Shaarawy
Club: AC Milan
National team: Italy
Nickname: "The Pharaoh"
Value: €23 million (via transfermarkt.de)
2012 Ballon d’Or position: not nominated
Haircut: "La Cresta"
Biggest achievement to date: equalling Marco van Basten’s Milan record for most goals at the start of a Serie A season (12 in 15 this campaign)
Name: Neymar da Silva Santos Junior
National team: Brazil
Value: €40 million (via transfermarkt.de)
2012 Ballon d’Or position (total number of nominations): 13th (23)
Haircut: the Mohawk
Biggest achievement to date: winning the 2011 Fifa Puskas award (see above video)
(Genoa, Padova and Milan)
Total club career goals (appearances): 31 (94)
Scoring rate: a goal every three games
Notable achievements: 2011 Serie B Player of the Year, 2012 Serie A Young Player of the Year, youngest Milan scorer in the history of the Champions League aged 19 years and 342 days (v Zenit St Petersburg, Oct 2012) and current Milan top scorer this season with 15 in 24 league games
Total club career goals (appearances): 129 (209)
Scoring rate: a goal every 1.6 games
Notable achievements: 2011 and 2012 South American Footballer of the Year, the former by a record margin when aged just 19
Hard to make an exact comparison here in terms of what the two players have achieved domestically as El Shaarawy has played his whole career in the most exacting league in the world for a forward, while Neymar has been operating in the more porous environments of the Brasileirao and the Campeonato Paulista, with neither hardly known for their defensive solidity, which would partly explain their vastly different scoring rates.
What one can say for certainty is that those in charge of transfers at the San Siro, namely vice-president Adriano Galliani, must think El Shaarawy has bucketloads of potential, otherwise they would not have sold their jewel in the crown, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to Paris Saint-Germain last summer and then based their future attack around this young thoroughbred by then offering the forward a new contract (via Fifa.com).
Remember also that this is the Rossoneri we are talking about here, who are famed for their reliance and trust in the OAP footballer, and the way in which their 20-year-old striker has responded to that burden being placed on his young shoulders this season by showing immense maturity to lead their attack, especially following Milan’s woeful start to their campaign, bodes well for the player’s long-term future and development.
Meanwhile for Neymar, there is now nothing left for him to achieve domestically back in his homeland, having inspired Santos to the 2011 Copa Libertadores (via ESPN) with six goals in 13 matches, as well as winning the 2010 Copa do Brasil and a hat-trick of Campeonato Paulista titles in succession (2010-12) along the way.
However, with each new Goal of the Year contender that he scores in South America, the question keeps arising: But can he produce such scintillating form against unforgiving European defences?
And until Neymar makes that long-awaited move to the Continent, judging his potential domestically is no easy task.
Total international career goals (appearances): 1 (4)
Scoring rate: a goal every four games
Notable achievements: one of only a select band of Italians to have made their full Azzurri debuts aged 19 or under
Total international career goals (appearances): 17 (28)
Scoring rate: a goal every 1.6 games
Notable achievements: scored after just 28 minutes of his Selecao debut against the United States in New Jersey in Aug 2010 (see above video)
While it took El Shaarawy three games to get off the mark for his country, netting in a 2-1 friendly defeat to France in Parma in Nov 2012, Neymar the showman naturally took less than half an hour to register his first-ever goal for the Samba Boys in a 2-0 win over the U.S. some two years previous (via ESPN)
And in fairness The Pharaoh is only just starting out on his international career, whereas Neymar has been a Brazil regular for the past three years, scoring an eye-catching 17 goals in only 28 matches in the process, including at his first and so far only major tournament, the 2011 Copa America.
So in this category, I think it is fair to say that Neymar is the master whose potential has been put to the test on the international stage, with encouraging results, while El Shaarawy, despite already being a regular starter for his country now, is still very much the pupil with greater challenges awaiting him with the Azzurri.
The characteristics that define El Shaarawy’s play are his pace, eye for goal, versatility and eye-catching dribbling skills and close control, with the player having been likened to both Neymar himself and former Milan playmaker Kaka.
“El Shaarawy reminds me of Neymar and Messi,” observed one-time Rossoneri legend Jose Altafini (via Football Italia). “They have a low centre of gravity. They play with the ball glued to their feet."
Meanwhile, the player himself says that Kaka is his role model: “Kaka was my role model, and thus I place Milan before everything,” (via Goal.com). And El Shaarawy’s first-ever goal for Milan in the Champions League (via the Guardian) was reminiscent of the great Brazil international in his pomp at the San Siro (see above video).
Neymar, on the other hand, is your archetypal playmaker, with all the tricks of the trade in his armoury, always looking to surprise opponents by using his explosive pace, two-footedness and ability to dribble and beat opposition players with solo runs to deadly effect—In essence, Neymar is a scorer of great goals as opposed to a great goalscorer.
The player himself says that Pele is his role model and he likes to watch stars such as: “Cristiano Ronaldo, [Andres] Iniesta, Xavi [Hernandez] and Wayne Rooney" (via Sky Sports), while highly-respected ex-Brazil international Zico says (via the Daily Telegraph) that the 21-year-old reminds him of: “[Cristiano] Ronaldo or a [Lionel] Messi, the type who appears and makes things happen."
Now it is time then to leave it up to those in the know who are best positioned to make such judgement calls and help us decide this tricky dilemma.
First up in El Shaarawy’s corner is former Ballon d’Or winner and one of the greatest strikers to have ever graced the game, former Milan legend Andriy Shevchenko, who believes that the 20-year-old has the potential to go on and “become a champion and an important player for Milan and the national side” (via Football Italia). High praise indeed from a man who knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it as a forward at the very highest levels of the game.
And, reinforcing that view is Milan CEO and vice-president Galliani, someone who for the past 27 years at the San Siro has had to judge a player’s raw potential on countless occasions and who has no doubt whatsoever about the Rossoneri’s new prodigy: "He is one of the best players in the world, he is like Neymar. He's a serious and mature player" (via Sky Sports).
Meanwhile representing Neymar, we have former Brazil captain and head coach Dunga, who has urged a note of caution with regard the 21-year-old’s future, saying that for the playmaker to reach his full potential then he must make the move to Europe so as to test himself domestically against the very best.
"Neymar is a good player, the best in South America and Brazil. Playing in Europe is always tougher. They mark you so much closer. I think that a player always needs to go to Europe to have that experience and get better" (via Goal.com).
What cannot be doubted is that we are comparing and contrasting two of the most exciting and technically accomplished young players currently operating on Planet Football, but which has the more potential though, and why?
For El Shaarawy, who really is just starting out on what he hopes will be a glittering career having played barely a handful of games for both Milan and Italy, the potential is obvious for all to see, and if he carries on in the same rich vein of form as he has displayed this season, then club and country really will have a bona fide superstar on their books.
A word of caution, however, as the same things were being said about one-time Milan striker Alexandre Pato at exactly the same age, and after a succession of debilitating injuries, his career has taken a nosedive.
So a good litmus test for The Pharaoh comes on Wednesday night, and then again in three weeks’ time, when he puts his undoubted striking skills up against the best club side on the planet. Now that really would be an opportune moment in which to show the world your true potential…
As for Neymar, it is as clear as day that the quick-footed playmaker has bundles of potential, the hard part, though, is gauging that potential and if it has been said once, it has been said a thousand times: until the 21-year-old swaps Santos for Spain, making a definitive judgement on just how good he is, or can be, is virtually impossible.
However, right now at this very moment in time, Neymar has achieved more in the game and along the way, shown the greater potential of the two.