Having recently returned to La Liga action after scoring the winning penalty to claim Olympic gold, Brazilian golden boy Neymar is back on the back pages like he never left. Controversy is never too far away from the 24 year old; this time it’s his showboating exploits that have the Spanish media divided on this latest act of trickery/treachery.
The Spanish premier division is no stranger to skilful Brazilians. The league has played host to some of the most outrageous players ever to come out of Brazil – think Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Robinho etc. etc. – so one would think that the elaborate expression of five-star skill moves is something that La Liga fans would not only be used to, but almost expect. However, in the eyes of some, Neymar is pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. Some believe that Neymar’s tricks on the football pitch is now straying from brilliant to showing a blatant disrespect to his opponents, leading to them getting frustrated and eventually lashing out at him.
This is an accusation that Neymar has had to deal with before. In February he performed an audacious rainbow flick against Celta Vigo, and did the same in a Copa Del Ray final in 2015 against Athletic Bilbao. Against Celta Vigo, the flick was met was rapturous applause by the Nou Camp faithful, who appreciated the fearlessness of their number 11. Against Athletic Bilbao however, the reaction from both the audience and players were very much different. Barca were 3-1 up and cruising to the win when in the 86th minute Neymar flicked the ball over the defender’s head before being blocked off. The Bilbao players acted with anger and started crowding around the Brazilian, shouting all sorts of Spanish expletives (I imagine), kicking off a mini handbag battle royale. Neymar remained extremely calm during all the fracas, and why not? His team were a few minutes away from the Copa Del Rey title, and with all this commotion, it would only run down the clock.
The Bilbao players, and fans alike, were outraged. Part of this could be attributed to the fact they were having to come to terms with being outplayed by a far superior team; their frustration at losing the cup final was already at a peak and now this act from Neymar gave them a perfect excuse to vent. The other reason for this outburst, and one which was much more focused on by the media in the days after the final, was that Neymar’s show of skill was went against the un-written laws of Spanish football, that it was rude and not akin to how the game is played in their country.
The issue started a whole debate on whether Neymar had overstepped the mark, a conversation that has restarted following Barcelona’s recent victory over Leganes. Names from all over the league have weighed in with their opinions on the matter:
Diego Simone – “Neymar is an extraordinary player. He won the Olympic Games after being criticised in Brazil after the first two games. He has found in Barcelona the right place to express his talent. Everyone has their own style and their own way of playing. He has been criticised, even in his personal life. He enjoys himself, sings, dances… and destroys teams. They can keep criticising him, the kid responds where he must respond.”
Michael Laudrup – “Why are you taking the ball across your own half? You’re provoking the opposition. At 0-4 you can’t be showboating and provoking your opponents.”
Zinedine Zidane – “That’s what Neymar is like. There are those who like it, and others who don’t. When you do too many tricks, it’s to be expected that your opponent will get angry, but in terms of entertainment value, it’s great that people get the chance to enjoy the performances of such a player.”
As far as I see it, Neymar can do what he wants to on the pitch. He’s earned it.
Neymar is one of the world’s best players because he is a risk-taker, because he is completely unapologetic in his self-confidence and in his approach to the beautiful game. He does things at the top level of competition that other players struggle to think about doing on a 5-a-side pitch with their younger cousins. He provides the entertainment that audiences pay season-tickets for and turns football pitches in to playgrounds with his skill. Neymar is a talent to be savoured, to be encouraged. Just because others’ mundane approach to winning a football match differs from Neymar’s it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. We are so conditioned against others’ expressing themselves and having total belief in their own ability that when it’s flashed in front of our eyes we don’t know what to do about it other than to reject it.
I think Guillem Balague summarised it perfectly:
“There is a non-written rule that you are not supposed to do what he does. But who wrote that rule? It goes back to how football was perceived in the Anglo-Saxon world – that it shows disrespect to your opponents. Neymar comes from a different culture. If you go to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, it happens all the time. It is how they show their love for the games and love for life. But there has to be a balance. There is a fine line between doing it for the love of it and taking the mickey. As long as he doesn’t go overboard, he can do as much showboating as he wants, but as a coach, I want him to be effective with it. Even with referees, there is a feeling that there has to be a limit to what you can do”
Good thing that Neymar scored 31 goals with 27 assists last season, otherwise there’d really be a problem.