FIFA Confederations Cup 2013: Neymar, Mario Balotelli in Spotlight on Big Stage
Neymar and Mario Balotelli are two different footballers with different backgrounds, different temperaments and, of course, different playing styles. But the two share one common trait: As young, talented attackers featuring for highly regarded national sides, both find themselves in the spotlight this summer at the FIFA Confederations Cup.
So how do the two compare? Let's take a look.
Neymar, 21, joined Barcelona earlier this month in a deal worth £49 million, per BBC Sport. The forward built his reputation with four strong years at Santos in his homeland of Brazil, helping the club to three Paulista titles and a Copa Libertadores triumph in 2011.
At the international level, Neymar has already made 35 appearances with Brazil's senior squad, scoring 21 times. That total includes the opening goal of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup against Japan on Sunday.
That goal, a powerful first-time volley from distance, showed off Neymar's exquisite touch, finishing skills and explosive potential. It was his fourth goal in five appearances with Brazil.
"He is someone who can dictate the game," said Brazil coach Luis Felipe Scolari, per Reuters. "He can run, pass (and) he can get past opponents. But he will become even better when he plays as a team player, but this can take time."
That last point is fair criticism, but Neymar has also shown that selfishness can be a goalscoring virtue. Neymar won the 2011 FIFA Puskas Award for the world's best goal of the year for a dazzling, dizzying solo run and golazo against Flamengo. That goal displayed his close control, vision, speed, acceleration and finishing touch.
Even more impressive was the fact that Neymar scored the goal and won the award at age 19. Coming at such a young age, the precocious goal was a powerful hint at his full potential.
Balotelli, 22, has already had a busy—if uneven—career in Europe, playing for Inter Milan, Manchester City and now AC Milan. Like Neymar, though, his full potential is still unrealized.
Born in Palermo, Italy, to Ghanaian parents, Balotelli grew up with a foster family in the northern part of the country. After making his full international debut with Italy in 2010, Balotelli enjoyed his best moment at Euro 2012, scoring both of Italy's goals in a 2-1 semifinal win over Germany.
The first was a header, and the second, which produced Balotelli's iconic flexing celebration, a stunning drive into the top corner. Both paid testament to his astonishing strength and skill, and both showed how much "Super Mario" is capable of at his best.
Balotelli showed off his strength again Sunday in scoring the winner against Mexico in Italy's opener at the Confederations Cup. Receiving a pass on the edge of the box, Balotelli out-muscled Francisco Rodriguez, then beat two defenders to the ball and poked past Jose Corona for his ninth international goal in 23 appearances.
It was the best of Balotelli, but then came the rest. Balotelli was booked for taking off his shirt, and while such a celebration made sense in the semifinal stage of Euro 2012, it was reckless and unnecessary in Italy's first group game at the Confederations Cup. With one more yellow card, Balotelli will draw a one-match suspension.
"Mario needs to stop showing off his muscles," Italy manager Cesare Prandelli said, per FIFA.com. "With celebrations like that, he’s only going to pick up pointless yellow cards."
Added veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo via Gabriele Marcotti of ESPN: "I want to congratulate him for his goal, but also give him a little smack. I did tell him before the game. I specifically told him not to get a silly booking because, with two, you're out. What are you going to do?"
Unwise decisions are nothing new for Balotelli, who also kicked his shoe in frustration during the second half. His career has been littered with such episodes both on and off the pitch, and his inconsistent nature has only held back his career.
Neymar, too, has dealt with inconsistency, albeit in a much less dramatic manner. As Jonathan Costa of ESPN points out, Neymar's performance against Japan in the Confederations Cup opener was only mediocre after his third-minute goal.
After that goal, Neymar’s impact on the game was a mixed bag. He managed the most touches in the attacking third of any player (34) and created two chances, but he completed only 16 of 23 passes (69.6 percent) in the attacking third and completed none of his four open-play crosses. He also managed only two touches in the penalty area all match, one in each half.
So, too, has Neymar struggled in high-profile matches, such as a friendly in England earlier this year and a FIFA Club World Cup match against Barcelona in 2011. "Right now I am very pleased with what he has done for the team," Scolari said in the Reuters article. "He has done everything asked of him, but he can and will get better as he gets older and more experienced."
That should be the case for both Neymar and Balotelli, and the Confederations Cup could be a platform for one or both to show how far they have progressed.
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