Football fans love a player that splits opinion. After all, if everybody always agreed then pub conversations and Twitter debates would be even more mundane than some would argue they already are. Barcelona’s latest signing, 21-year-old Neymar probably shouldn’t be a topic of such discussion but he personifies the mantra of not being able to please all of the people all of the time.
Neymar is Brazil’s golden boy and the undoubted face of World Cup 2014. During this summer’s Confederations Cup campaign, it’s not difficult to see the extent to which he is adored by his fellow countrymen and women. There are genuine boos when a decision doesn’t go his way or when Luiz Felipe Scolari has the sheer audacity to substitute him. One-man team accusations are tiresome and banal, particularly when Brazil boast players of the quality of Oscar, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves et al. Neymar doesn’t carry the team on his young shoulders, but I’ve no doubt there are people who have used their hard earned to pay and go and see him and him alone.
Not everyone falls into that bracket, of course, but it is somewhat understandable; Neymar, in my opinion at least, is just about the most entertaining footballer on the planet. Nobody since Ronaldinho has had such a plethora of tricks up his sleeve, or in Neymar’s case, probably those extremely long socks. But unlike Kerlon (remember him?), who was a massive internet hit with his unique ‘seal dribbling’ technique, Neymar isn’t just a showboater – the vast array of skills at his disposal aren’t just used to get the crowd on his side and fuel his ego; more often than not he uses them to great effect in beating his man when other, more orthodox methods, won’t work.
Every time he gets the ball, you can hear the decibels increase within the stadium. It’s as if you can hear people edging slowly off their seats in anticipation of what he’s going to do next. He is gloriously unpredictable, which must make him a nightmare to defend against. But there are fans who don’t seem to warm to him the way millions of other football fans across the world have; branding him a ‘show pony’ or ‘a YouTube player,’ the definition of which I assume is someone who looks great when compiling mini clips from various games, but isn’t effective over the course of a 90 minute match.
Well, Neymar is doing his best to dispel those myths. At the Olympic Games in the UK in 2012, we got to see some of his supreme ability first hand. Along with the dazzling dribbles and silky skills was the end product many say he’s lacking. He grabbed three goals throughout, the pick of which was a quite magnificent free-kick against Egypt. Brazil’s highly-promising U23 team surprisingly lost the final to Mexico and went home with only a silver medal but Neymar had certainly left his mark.
Fast forward 12 months and he looks to have improved even further. He has been the stand out player at this summer’s Confederations Cup; notching up three fantastic goals and two assists in his country’s trio of group games. The goal which opened the tournament, much like the strikes from Siphiwe Tshabalala in 2010 and Phillipp Lahm in 2006, was explosive. The ball dropped to the edge of the box and, with minimal space to operate in, Neymar adjusted his body and struck the ball perfectly into the top corner on the volley. The technique was glorious – the type of goal that only the most gifted of players can pull off.
He went on to prove it was no fluke with another stunning volley in the following game against Mexico, this time with his left foot. His borderline ambidexterity, probably borne from playing most of his football from the left-hand side, is indicative of a truly great talent. All you have to do is look at the elite players; Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie are all more than adept with their ‘weaker’ foot and Neymar has emphatically ticked that box. He also has the unique gift of being able to create something from absolutely nothing; he’s a genuine match winner that deserves his place in any team, as demonstrated when he superbly assisted Jo later in the same game. With two defenders for company and seemingly going nowhere other than to the corner flag, Neymar instantly stepped between both with breath-taking speed before laying the ball on a plate for his teammate.
It was his delivery that resulted in Dante’s opener in the final group game against Italy before Neymar again found the back of the net, thanks to what can only be described as a ripsnorting free-kick. He is already proving to be the stand-out individual of the Confederations Cup. He is beginning to win some of his doubters around but there are plenty who remain sceptical.
The suggestion that he needs to prove himself at an elite club before being considered truly ‘world class,’ a buzz term that is thrown around far too often if you ask me, is one I completely understand. But even then I think the argument is tenuous. It’s little more than insulting to assume that Brazilian club football is of a pub league quality; particularly when I’d wager the majority of Neymar’s ‘haters’ never once watched him for Santos – the team where he racked up a hugely impressive 136 goals in 225 games.
The arrogance of some fans is shocking. Maybe I’m not reading the situation correctly but it seems you have to score four goals against England to, even then begrudgingly, be accepted as a pretty handy player. Just ask Zlatan Ibrahimovic who, despite winning eight consecutive titles with various clubs, scoring a hatful of goals along the way, was just another overrated foreigner until his outrageous performance against the Three Lions last year. These players are so unfairly slated by the masses on a regular basis and it leads to a ridiculous paradox where ‘overrated’ players in fact become ‘underrated’ because of the frequency of such comments.
The ignorance of any football outside Europe, or even England is simply outrageous. I have no doubt it stems from mainstream media such as the BBC who employ irreverent cliché merchants like Alan Shearer, Robbie Savage and Mark Lawrenson. The latter is particularly bad at acknowledging the game outside of these isles. I’m confident in saying I probably watch far more football than he does, even though it’s not in my job description. Lazy, outdated comments are constantly regurgitated, from Shearer saying Mario Balotelli hadn’t achieved anything after losing the Euro 2012 Final (he’d won three league titles and a Champions League aged 21) to Lawrenson claiming Messi hadn’t done much for Argentina (at the time of the comment, he’d scored 12 goals in 9 games).
How do they know the Brazilian league is of Sunday League standard when they never bother to watch it? At this stage I must point out, I’m no South American football aficionado – I watch the occasional late night/early morning match because I’m currently running off a very unhealthy sleeping pattern (thanks, uni), but do not claim to do so religiously.
I appreciate not everyone has the luxury of time in watching gargantuan amounts of football, or they may want to spend it doing other, inevitably far less enjoyable activities, but it’s the attitude that really grates. When he failed to score against England back in February, Mirror journalist John Cross took a swipe, tweeting: “That Neymar is a bit rubbish #barndoor.” There may have been a hint of irony about the comment but he and so many others are quick to condemn praise of anything that isn’t brave and British. Perhaps some admire the patriotism but to, me at least, it comes across more as petty and bitter.
Despite his youth, Neymar made himself into a Santos icon and a new challenge was required; and where better to test himself than alongside Messi, Iniesta and co? All eyes will be on him next summer at the World Cup but he now has a chance to prove his worth – all €57million of it – to a wider audience. As alluded to earlier, he’s probably already the most entertaining player in the world. Barcelona can make him the best.