Once in a blue moon, stars align. Like when Lionel Messi curled in a free kick against Nigeria on Wednesday. Capping his second for the day, the nimble Argentine equaled Neymar’s goal tally, aligning the pair as World Cup top scorers.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that two of world’s most highly valued footballers are dominating in Brazil, but many tournaments have passed since we last saw a striker duel of similar caliber. Never before have we seen two club mates — at star-studded FC Barcelona, no less — shouldering the iconic No. 10s for title-contending teams, each score four goals in the first three games.
Throw the fabled Brazil-Argentina rivalry into the mix, and this duel has all the makings of a true classic.
Which is fortunate, as the football-loving public have too often been denied showdowns between contemporary greats; there was never such a battle between Jean-Pierre Papin and Marco van Basten. Nor between Raúl and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Individually, even, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Ruud Gullit, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andriy Shevchenko are just a few in a long list of world-class strikers who have failed to leave a serious mark on the premier tournament of football.
So to have two greats of their time performing near their peak in the same tournament is an almost unparalleled treat.
There are myriad reasons for this shortfall. After a long, brutal season, plus severely curtailed preparation under the highest possible pressure, players struggle surrounded by unfamiliar teammates, most probably on a foreign continent, and under a manager who doesn’t, and perhaps can’t, understand them like they do at Real Madrid, Manchester United or Juventus.
Messi would be able to tell you about these woes. He hardly put up a bad show in South Africa 2010, but was pulled down into a playmaking role and only scored once.
Neymar’s troubles have rather come at club level. The 22-year-old has already surpassed Brazilian legends like Ronaldinho and Rivaldo in international goals, but the 15 he notched up during his first season at FC Barcelona falls well short of his hype (or astronomical $118 million price tag).
In Brazil, the club mates have already impressed like few others. However, other star strikers have floundered after such a beginning.
Gabriel Batistuta and Christian Vieri were off to a similar start in 1998, but after netting again in the round of eight, both of their teams, Argentina and Italy, were sent packing. Miroslav Klose failed to continue his form of the first three games in 2002, during which he headed five balls into the net, even though Germany made it all the way to the final.
For all talk of group-stage stardom, the truly great duels come down to the knockout rounds. Paolo Rossi and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in 1982. Rudi Völler and Maradona in 1986. Roberto Baggio and Romário in 1994. Ronaldo against the world in 2002.
This tournament’s face-off between the South American stars may even be broadened to a three-horse race on Thursday evening, when three-time scorer Thomas Müller’s Germany takes on Team USA. Others may come along on the way — and granted, goals are not the only way to lead your team to glory.
But with the makings of such an epic battle of the strikers, there will be plenty who pray the constellations stay in place.