Kylian Mbappe can crown himself a successor to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as the world’s best player before the end of 2022, according to Gary Neville.
For 15 years, the best-player-in-the-world debate has been dominated by two names – Ronaldo and Messi. The global icons have redefined football as we know it, raising an already high bar to unfathomable heights with their goals, professionalism, and longevity.
The names Ronaldo and Messi transcend the game itself, but with the duo 37- and 34-years-old, respectively, like all things, their reign is coming to an end and a changing of the guard is in motion.
“We may see cameos or little swansongs here and there, but there is no doubt that Ronaldo and Messi are coming to the end of their careers,” Neville told Sky Sports.
“That’s not to say they are coming to the end of their careers and will retire at the end of the season; Ronaldo and Messi could play three or four more years, knowing their fitness. Declining seems like the wrong word when talking about two great players, but there is no doubt they are declining forces.
“At this moment in time, for the first time in years, if you asked people which player in the world they would sign if I could only pick one, no one would say Messi or Ronaldo, they would probably say Mbappe, Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah, Robert Lewandowski.
“You would be naming players other than Ronaldo and Messi, and that is the clearest sign that, while these two are still operating at the highest level, they are fading from the levels they were at before. They are no longer the best players in the world. “
‘Mbappe already at elite level’
Salah, Haaland and Lewandowski are all jostling to succeed Ronaldo and Messi but, as Neville explains, not only is Mbappe already at their level and heir apparent, he has two opportunities to seize the throne this year.
“In terms of excitement, in terms of thrill, in terms of speed, Mbappe is absolutely sensational,” Neville said. “He reminds me of Thierry Henry, but he’s also got a bit of Cristiano Ronaldo in him – he’s ruthless.
“He needs to win the Champions League with PSG this season, which would be the ultimate thing for him. The Champions League, and another World Cup, would be the crowning glory for Mbappe to succeed Ronaldo and Messi.
“I’m not saying he needs to win those trophies to become the best player in the world, but it cements your position if you play for the teams that win either of those trophies. For Mbappe, he knows silverware and honors go with that greatness.
“Mbappe’s last-minute goal against Real Madrid in the Champions League was absolutely sensational. The great players win tournaments, they win big competitions, they are influential in big competitions. Mbappe is at that level now.”
‘Mbappe a decade from being in conversation’
Mbappe may have emerged as the most credible successor to Ronaldo and Messi, but Neville was keen to stress his journey to true, all-time greatness remains very much in its infancy.
Players can have great campaigns and tournaments, inspiring their teams to silverware and notable accomplishments over several seasons. Mbappe’s achievements with Paris Saint-Germain and France are evidence of that.
But it’s the off-the-scale levels of consistency, coupled with success which has spanned decades, which has set Ronaldo and Messi apart, and emulating that represents Mbappe’s greatest challenge.
“That’s a great challenge for Mbappe,” Neville added.
“What we mustn’t underestimate with Ronaldo and Messi is their resilience; their consistency; the standards season in, season out; the number of games they have played; their toughness, mentally and physically, to withstand all the kickings they will have taken and the criticism they will have had, the pressure and scrutiny that is on them.
“Mbappe has got 10 years before he can even think that he is Ronaldo or Messi. Even if Mbappe gets to their level for one season, he will never surpass Ronaldo or Messi for at least 12 years, because he’s got to do it over that length of time to be in the same conversation as them.
“He’s got the attributes, he’s got the star quality to do a 10-year run of 20, 30 goals a season. But, having said that, it’s not even at the level of Ronaldo or Messi.
“To get to those levels, Mbappe is going to have to win three or four Champions Leagues, he’s got to score 30 to 40 goals a season for a decade, and he’s probably got to go and do it in a country other than France.
That sounds really disrespectful to France, but I don’t think his aspirations of being regarded as the greatest player of all time can be realized there. He’s got to go and play somewhere else to prove he can do it in Spain, England, or Germany. “
Nev: Mbappe has edge on world-class Salah
Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah has thrust himself into the conversation for the world’s best player title with spectacular goals and performances few playing the game could match.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher described Salah as the best player in the world on current form after the Egyptian’s dazzling performance in Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Manchester City in October, an assessment Neville could not disagree with.
Salah is without question world class, he has underpinned Liverpool’s success under Jurgen Klopp and helped deliver the club’s coveted first Premier League title and a sixth European Cup, but Neville believes Mbappe possesses something Salah doesn’t.
“At times earlier in the season, Salah was at a level that was the best in the world, and he could still be,” Neville added. “But if you said to me I could sign one player for Manchester United tomorrow, I would still probably go for Mbappe or Haaland over Salah.
“It’s not a Liverpool thing, I think Salah is absolutely amazing, but I just think Mbappe has got the ability to be out-of-this-world special. There’s no doubt Salah is world class, but Mbappe has got something different, that edge, something that is that good, it could make him one of the true greats. “
New: Haaland a modern-day Canton
Erling Haaland is still only 21 but his formidable goalscoring record of 56 goals in 57 Bundesliga games since his arrival at Borussia Dortmund already places him among the elite.
For Neville, Haaland’s personality, character and persona is as significant as his ability to back up his hopes of achieving greatness on the pitch.
“I like Haaland’s personality,” Neville said. “I like that fact he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He’s got a bit of Eric Cantona in him, he’s the modern-day version if you like.
“People call it arrogant, I get that, but he has the ability to back it up. You can’t teach that. Football needs people like him, it needs personality. We want players with something about them. For every angel, we want a Haaland, a young personality who doesn’t do things perfectly.
“We want professional, well-behaved people, but we also want personality and character and people who are willing to go against the norm, that’s what Haaland does.”
Haaland and Mbappe: The new Messi and Ronaldo?
As for whether Haaland and Mbappe can pick up the baton and dominate world football to the extent Ronaldo and Messi for the past decade and beyond, Neville is not so sure.
“I don’t think Haaland and Mbappe can get anywhere near the levels of Ronaldo and Messi,” he added.
“Haaland and Mbappe are two young players who are massively talented. They can become the best in the world and achieve great things, but we shouldn’t think every new, young superstar will automatically take over from Ronaldo and Messi, who are the kind of players you’d be lucky to see once every 80 years.
“Players like these aren’t produced every decade. In my time we had Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, world-class players who were absolutely sensational, but even as great as they were, they were not Messi and Ronaldo, who are on another planet. “
‘Ronaldo and Messi arguably the greatest of all time’
It would be remiss not to reflect on the impact Ronaldo and Messi have had on football, and just how high they have pushed the boundaries beyond what anyone thought could ever be possible.
Across their glittering careers, Ronaldo and Messi have won 12 Ballon d’Ors, nine Champions Leagues, 17 domestic league titles between them, and led their respective nations, Portugal and Argentina, to European Championship and Copa America success.
This insatiable hunger for success has seen them push each other to ridiculous levels, securing their places in the pantheon of all-time greats while revolutionizing football along the way.
“These two players, you could argue, the greatest two players of all time,” Neville said.
“We are very nervous about suggesting who the greatest players of all time are when they are still playing, we tend to want to give honor and grace to people when they have retired or when they have passed away.
“But I am under absolutely no illusions that these two players will never be out of anybody’s top five players of all time, and for most these two will be first and second.
“There might be people who say Pele or Maradona, but Ronaldo and Messi are in the realms of Pele and Maradona, players you never thought would be emulated. What Ronaldo and Messi have achieved is out of this world, the numbers have been unrelenting, obscene. “
‘Ronaldo and Messi have redefined football’
Neville continued: “They have not been traditional center-forwards, which makes the numbers they have hit even more incredible. Purely on goals, Ronaldo and Messi have redefined football.
“Ordinarily the biggest goalscorers in a team have been center-forwards, wide players were there to assist and cross, but they have redefined how we see the wide striker in football, and the wide striker can now be a 30, 40 goals a season machine.
“Salah and Mane are now doing that at Liverpool, Sterling at Manchester City – they are scoring a load of goals from the wide striker position, and that is all because Ronaldo and Messi have set that expectation at that level.
“Not only have they redefined a position, but they have also created a new one of wide striker, with Ronaldo predominantly on the left and Messi on the right. They have done it for 15 seasons consistently. It is off the scale, ridiculous. “