Neymar at Russia 2018 came out with the reputation of a farceur, but behind everything else, there is a man who is already Brazil’s third highest goalscorer.
Brazil versus Mexico, July 2018. Neymar’s finished his seventh roll on the floor and is writhing about in exaggerated agony even as the world watches and prepares to flay him for it. Since, the media has been flooded with everyone and their grandmum’s dogs having an opinion, particularly in the non-Brazilian outlets. On the other hand, Brazilian newspaper Globo ran a headline titled “Neymar has charmed Brazil but annoyed the whole world.”
To understand that, one must go back in time.
Barcelona versus Villareal, November 2015. The move is started by Neymar da Silva Santos Junior, who passes it wide to teammate Luis Suarez, before running into the opposition box, ready to receive the ball he knows is coming. He flicks it over his head, swivels around, and neatly slots it into the back of the net. All in the blink of an eye. His languid grace makes it look easy, joyful, this move and all his other tricks honed during his futsal and street football days. The sombrero kick, arcing like a rainbow that gives it its other name. There’s more than a touch of the ginga to it and therein lies the crux of what Neymar means to Brazil and Brazilian football.
Neymar was still three years away from his first professional contract with FC Santos, when France kicked Brazil out of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. But his path to the future was already laid out before him, whether anyone was aware of it or not, and with it the crushing pressure and expectation of a country that lives for football and is unforgiving to even its heroes.
That 2006 squad is important when understanding Neymar’s current position. The 2006 World Cup was the last major tournament for both Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, the former already on the decline despite his inclusion and contributions, the latter announcing his retirement soon after Brazil’s exit. Adriano, another bright prospect seemingly destined for great things, was already fighting depression following the death of his father and had even been dropped from the team for a little while as a warning by coach Dunga. Soon after the tournament, he slipped into darkness and alcohol, never to fulfill his potential. And Kaka and Ronaldinho, the other two who made up the famed “magic quartet” prior to the 2006 World Cup with Ronaldo and Adriano, began their own slow but steady descent.
On July 4, 2012, Brazil was 11th in the FIFA rankings, the first time the Selecao dropped out of the top ten since the rankings were created in 1993. On June 6, 2013, Brazil had their lowest-ever rank at number 22.
Just like that, the return of Brazil’s Jogo Bonito was obliterated.
The lad from the Mogi das Cruzes municipality of Sao Paulo is one of the most talented players to come out of the country, even when you consider some of the legends. In his generation, he’s undisputedly the only one who has the requisite talents and quality to lead his country on the big stage; his cunning and trickery, the speed with which he thinks and moves harking back to the days of joyful football, back to the days when Brazil ruled the world with their unique brand of football and their exploits at the World Cup moulded the country’s identity.
What makes it even more impressive is the fact that he is already the third-highest scorer for Brazil, behind Pele and Ronaldo, despite less than stellar support from inconsistent teammates, both up front and in the midfield. All the great Brazilian teams of the past had perfect foils for their star players, especially strikers (Pele and Rivelino, Jairzinho and Garrincha, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho; even Maradona had Valdano and Burruchaga)
But, if you look at the 2010 and 2014 World Cup squads, you’ll see that apart from Robinho, the quality of the forwards (Luis Fabiano, Nilmar, Grafite, Hulk, Fred, Bernard, Jo etc) isn’t what you expect from the most successful country at the World Cup. At the same time, Ganso and Oscar have since failed to live up to their promise and Brazil’s search for an outright creative presence in the midfield continues. Under these circumstances, it’s amazing that Neymar, with 57 goals in 89 matches, is largely responsible for Brazil’s Olympic Gold, an Olympic silver, and a World Cup semi-final on home soil, though the final result is one that will always rankle if only for the fact that he watched helpless from the stands.
For a country that places equal emphasis on the “volante” position, (each of their World-Cup-winning sides have had a stellar defensive midfielder, whether Gilberto, Dunga, or Clodoaldo), the pressure to perform, and to win, falls to the playmakers. The silky, smooth, exuberant football Brazil is known for. And before Neymar, they really haven’t had anyone who fulfilled that role or their initial promise in a while. They haven’t really come close to a player who can legitimately claim to be right up there with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Say what you will about him, but Neymar’s a team player mostly adored by his national colleagues. In their win against Mexico, it was his backheel that started the move that led to the goal, his sixth at World Cups. He’s needed only 38 attempts on goal, while Messi needed 67 and Ronaldo 74. He’s also created the most number of goalscoring chances (16), living up to the billing of their star playmaker. Yet, in the public and media eye, his theatrical antics have wiped all of that away, leaving only a pantomime figure. The larger footballing narrative needs a villain and they’ve found one in Neymar Junior who makes it almost too easy.
There’s no question that he exaggerates contact, no question that he’s not bothered about coming across like a third-rate actor. Here’s a 26 year old that seems almost proud of his stubbornly adolescent streak, what many have called his Peter Pan syndrome; it maybe goes with the €222 million tag of the most expensive transfer fee of the current PSG star. But there’s a statistic that isn’t mentioned often enough. The amount of times the compact Brazilian has been fouled. As clear from this disciplinary record, 23 is a number far higher than any of the other players, even Cristiano and Messi. Not to say that it condones rolling around, but he’s a targeted man on the pitch even without the pressures of what he represents for his football-mad country. The chance of international success and a redemption of their identity after a slow, twelve-year wait.