Can Neymar emulate Ronaldo’s 2002 World Cup prowess?
Ever since the beginning of his professional career, Neymar has seen himself routinely compared to one of his biggest football idols, Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima - otherwise known as the “Original Ronaldo”, the “Real Ronaldo”, or R9. With both Brazilian having played for Barcelona, boasting superb technical abilities, extreme hunger for goal and even their preference for some pretty eccentric haircuts, it’s an easy comparison to make.
Not only that, but both players even share several of the same hobbies outside, including dancing, dating models, and playing games of chance. Both players are ambassador for a well-known poker brand and have played casino tournaments all over the word as well as in an online setting.
While both players have acknowledged the comparisons between them - on and outside the field, they have opted to move away from them, making it clear that while Ronaldo was a clear inspiration for Neymar, the latter has his own particular style, history and skill set that sets him apart and make him a completely different kind of threat to his opponents.
Nevertheless, the comparisons between the two have continued to pile up throughout the years - including some of turns of fate throughout their career that have an almost eerie sense of serendipity. But what really continues to drive this comparison forward with pundits and fans alike is their desire to see Neymar inherit Ronaldo’s mantle and turn in a dazzling World Cup performance that can see him take Brazil all the way to lifting their 6th World Cup trophy in Russia, just like Ronaldo did in 2002 - the last time the Seleção lifted football’s most coveted trophy.
Ronaldo’s long way to World Cup glory
After the referee blew the whistle at the end of the 1998 World Cup final, Ronaldo cut a very dejected figure. The entire match he looked absolutely lost in daze, a shadow of a ghost of his usual self, and the 0-3 scoreline that gave France their first World Cup ever reflected that.
Later on, the truth would come out about Ronaldo’s health the fateful night before the France final, when Ronaldo suffered from convulsions in an unexplained fit which caused him to be taken off the lineup. Only after getting positive medical tests and convincing coach Mario Zagallo did he end up starting in the game, in what many hail as the worst performance of his career.
Four years later, it did not seem like it would be Ronaldo’s year either. After rupturing the ligaments in his right knee in 1999, Ronaldo was forced to have a surgery. After months of recovery, he made his comeback in 2000, only for his knee to once again give in 7 minutes into his first match. Additional surgery and recovery kept him out of the fields for almost the entire 2000-01 season, as well as having to sit out Brazil’s entire CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup. It was doubtful that he would be able to feature in the world’s biggest sporting event at all.
However, thanks to intensive rehabilitation and the help of a hugely talented team of doctors and trainers, he managed to recover on time - to the great chagrin of all his opponents. To put it mildly, Ronaldo was absolutely majestic during the entire cup. He managed to score against China, Costa Rica and Belgium in the group stage, and later against Belgium and Turkey in the semifinals.
When the final came along, the world’s eyes were on Ronaldo. However, instead of the forlorn performance he put in 4 years ago, Ronaldo was on blistering form and put 2 goals past the legendary German keeper Oliver Kahn to help Brazil lift the cup. His comeback has been named one of the most remarkable ones of all time, and his 8 goals in the World Cup earned him the year’s Ballon d'Or.
Neymar looks for Brazilian redemption
Neymar’s World Cup story coming into Russia 2018 may not be exactly the same as Ronaldo’s, but it is also filled with difficulties and huge disappointment.
Four years ago, Brazil was ripe with excitement as they were to host the third World Cup in their history. Boasting a team full of stars leadered by Neymar, one of the world’s most promising players, there was great expectation for Brazil to lift their sixth cup after a 12-year drought.
While things started off well for Brazil and Neymar, with the latter recording 4 goals and 1 assist in 5 matches. However, it was during the quarter-final win against Colombia that things took a turn for the worse, as Neymar saw his World Cup dream end early thanks to an injury resulting from a knee in the back from Colombian Juan Zuniga.
Brazil’s next match is perhaps the most infamous World Cup match of all time, as they were absolutely brutalized at home by the eventual world champions Germany, with a scandalous scoreline of 7-1. Neymar, meanwhile, had to watch impotently from the stands as his team suffered the worst defeat in their storied history, one that will not soon be forgotten.
Four years later, Brazil has managed to turn the page from the Mineirãzo. Not only have they assembled on of their most talented teams since 2002, but they managed to finish 10 points clear in the CONMEBOL qualifiers. Recently, they even managed to inflict on Germany their first defeat in 22 games in a friendly match and are touted by many as one of the biggest contenders for the cup.
As is expected, Neymar - now captaining the Seleção - has been a pivotal part of Brazil’s recent success. It was therefore a huge blow when the most expensive player in history suffered an injury in February while playing for PSG that would keep him away for the rest of the season and would put him in doubt for the start of the World Cup.
While recent reports are optimistic about the timeline of his recovery, his injury has certainly presented him with a setback. Or, if Ronaldo’s situation has taught him anything, the perfect comeback opportunity.
Ronaldo, one of Neymar’s biggest supporters, has had plenty to say of his successor: 'Neymar getting injured is a big problem for us but I think he will recover soon and he'll be fit for the World Cup. Many people compare his story with mine before the World Championship in 2002, but of course it’s not the same.’
‘My advice for him is to concentrate only on his well-being and to try to protect himself from the pressure as much as possible. I’m sure his recovery will be much faster than mine was, and I believe he will be there in the World Cup’.
The Brazilian people can only hope Ronaldo and Neymar’s story is more similar than Ronaldo believes.