December 18, 2011. Yokohama, Japan. The Club World Cup final. Barcelona versus Santos.
Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona taking on Brazil’s most iconic club – the Santos of Pele and Carlos Alberto.
The Santos of Neymar. Teenage sensation Neymar. ‘Future Ballon d’Or winner’ Neymar.
This was a clash billed as Neymar versus Lionel Messi. The apprentice versus the master. The Brazilian pretender to the Argentine throne. Neymar, some said, was ready to show the world that he was Messi’s equal. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Barcelona won 4-0. Messi was mesmerising, his two goals bookending a masterclass from a breathtakingly beautiful – and devastatingly brutal – team at their peak.
The broken leg sustained by David Villa in the semi-final led to Guardiola fielding a 4-6-0 formation. Never has a team without a recognised striker looked so potent. Never has Neymar looked so impotent.
The spindly 19-year-old Santos talisman, with his bleached blond Mohican and nosestrip and luminous yellow boots, could only look on as Messi and co ran riot.
After the game, Neymar gushed: “Barcelona taught us what it is to really play football. They are a machine. They were superior to us and we faced fantastic footballers. We’ve managed to be crowned the second-best team in the world and if you lose to a team like Barca then second best means something.”
Four years on, Guardiola is gone. Xavi and Cesc Fabregas, Barcelona’s other goalscorers in the 2011 final, are gone. Tiki-taka is gone.
Messi remains, of course. Barcelona were defined by Messi then, and they are defined by Messi now. But this is a new Barcelona.
To borrow Neymar’s description, they are still a “machine”. But the days of Barca playing without a recognised forward have long gone. This is the Barca of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar
The Catalans proved capable of overcoming Guangzhou Evergrande in the semi-finals without two of their big three, as Messi suffered from renal colic and Neymar battled a groin problem.
The Brazilian is no longer a teenage tyro. He is 23, captain of his country, a Ballon d’Or finalist alongside Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Neymar is the scorer of 16 goals in 18 appearances in all competitions this season. The man who, aided and abetted by Suarez, relished being Messi’s stand-in as Barca’s main man when the Argentinian missed almost two months with a knee injury.
The blond Mohican has gone. He’s still spindly, and the outlandishly coloured boots remain. But Neymar means business. He won’t win the Ballon d’Or this time around – Messi is the overwhelming favourite to take the prize for a fifth time – but he’s getting closer.
When asked about Neymar and his memories of the 2011 final by FIFA.com last week, Messi replied: “A lot of time’s gone by since then and I’ve witnessed his enormous growth, both as a footballer and as a person. Back then he was already a really great player and now he’s even more so, he’s much more complete. Truthfully, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to have him alongside us now.”
On Sunday, Neymar could finally get another chance to dazzle in Yokohama, now wearing, rather than chasing, the famous Blaugrana shirt.
And this time, should both men recover from their fitness issues, he’ll have idol Messi on his side. River Plate had better watch out.