Once again Neymar is the ghost at the party. This week, he will miss Paris Saint-Germain’s visit to Barcelona, just as he has missed so many big Champions League games over the last few seasons.
At least this time one ludicrous accusation against him can be hurled aside with force. No one can argue — as has been argued in past years — that this is a “diplomatic” injury used as a cover story for him to bolt back to Brazil and take enthusiastic part in the revelry of Carnaval. For obvious reasons around the COVID-19 pandemic, this year there is no revelry, and no consolation for a player who recently turned 29 and is aware that his extraordinary talent has a time limit.
“The sadness is big, the pain is immense and the tears are a constant,” he posted on social media. “Once again I’ll have to stop for a while doing what I most love which is playing football. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with my style of play, because I dribble and constantly end up getting kicked. I don’t know if the problem is me or what I do on the pitch.”
His words open up an interesting debate. Because there is no doubt that, for any excesses that he may commit on the field, Neymar is a player much more sinned against than sinning. Opponents seek to stop him by fair means and by foul, but it has been thus since the first ball was ever kicked. There is not a talented player in the history of the game who has not come up against both hard and unscrupulous markers.
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In fact, there has probably not been a better time to be a player of Neymar’s characteristics. Some of the old school would argue that the likes of Neymar and even Lionel Messi would simply not have been able to perform a few decades ago, or at the very least would have had to make huge adjustments to their game, because of the violent play to which they would have been subjected.
According to Moraci Sant’Anna, the highly-regarded former physical preparation specialist of the Brazil national team, the distance covered by players in top level football doubled from the mid-1970s to the mid ’90s. But it was only at the end of this period, after the disappointment of the 1990 World Cup, that a crackdown was launched against dangerous tackling — a bid to help the talented player and improve the spectacle for fans.
This piece of information makes the career of Diego Maradona even more spectacular. During his playing days, there was less space on the field without an increase in protection from the referees. Maradona took the field without knowing if he would end the game back in the dressing room or in hospital.
Today’s stars have things easier, which is undeniably a good thing. And as times have changed, there are also differences in the way that the players have developed. In part, the tragedy of Neymar is also that of Brazilian football.
Perhaps the greatest producer of talent in the history of the game is informal street football in Brazil. Generation after generation of stars honed their skills and grew up as players and as people in this environment. It is much to be regretted that in the last few decades, street football in the big urban centres has come under prolonged attack — from urban expansion, eating up spaces, from the triumph of the automobile and, especially harmfully, from the insecurity caused by rising crime rates.
The response has been to get the kids inside, into safe and supervised conditions. Futsal has thrived — some have tried to sell it as the great Brazilian secret, when in reality all it could be was a substitute for the street, but it is a substitute unable to replicate all the attributes of the original.
In the days of informal street football, talented players — often small and skilful — would find themselves up against opponents who were bigger and older. This was an ideal environment for learning self-defence skills. Zizinho, the star player of the 1950 World Cup, once said that he and other greats at the time were proficient in the dark arts of injuring an opponent. He did not say this as a boast, merely as a necessary survival skill in a tough world with no protection. But the best survival skill of all was the ability to judge the moment — to know when it was worthwhile to go for the extravagant dribble, and when to move the ball on quickly to a teammate.
This is a skill that Neymar never had to hone too much. He was hot-housed, developed in a supervised environment with the presence of a referee, and so his survival skill was always to use the referee for protection, looking to draw fouls and cards for vigorous markers.
The roots of so many of his problems can be found therein. He came through at a time when Brazilian referees were giving fouls for the slightest contact. Officials later in his career have not always used the same criteria — a source of both frustration and danger for a player who spends some (and surely too much) of his time actively trying to entice his opponent into committing a foul.
It might do him good, for example, to study some clips of Maradona to observe the ways that he dealt with constant intimidation. For the next few weeks Neymar has time on his hands — he can put it to good use and come back even better.