Neymar shed adolescent image with maturity restraint on pitch
It is striking how Ronaldinho was so loved, and how Neymar can be so hated.
The adulation for Ronaldinho appears to overlook the extent to which he betrayed his own talent; as a top-class performer he was effectively finished by 26. True, there were occasional triumphs and great moments afterward — he was a genius. But he was a genius who had stopped caring. After 26, he was never fit enough to tip the balance at the highest level. Injuries were not to blame — just his own disinterest. And there was something cynical about the way he wandered round the world in search of fat contracts without, it appeared, being sufficiently committed to the cause to get himself into shape. Yet he is still loved.
Neymar has now reached the age of 26. Though he is constantly criticized for his off-the-field activities, so far there is not the slightest sign that they have taken the edge off his game. Along with his amazing technical ability, he continues to possess one of the most searing busts of acceleration in the world game. And, whatever the financial considerations, there is something noble about his decision to leave Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain. He is certainly not fleeing from the battlefield. Indeed, he is putting himself on the line in the quest for excellence. Yet he is widely hated.
While talking about him on a Brazilian TV show recently, I was struck by the ferocity of the audience response. For some, he can do no wrong, and the media are to blame for carping. On the other side of the debate, there was real hostility aimed at him. One viewer described Neymar as “the worst type of humanity.”
The difference, surely, is that Ronaldinho came across as a child, and Neymar comes across as an adolescent.
At his peak, Ronaldinho’s goofy smile was gloriously captivating, inviting you to share in the pleasure which (all too briefly) he gained from his own extraordinary ability. Neymar’s smile can be that of a stroppy adolescent, a sarcastic response to a request to clean his room. “Whatever.”
There are, of course, millions around the world who relate to this message. Neymar communicates well with them, his audience. But he tends to communicate badly with everyone else. From my own — very brief — experience of him, and from those who know him far better than I do, in the middle of all the fuss seems to be a pleasant and personable young man.
Football, though, can place aspects of character under a microscope so that they can be gazed at by millions. In the case of Neymar, there will always be controversial aspects about the way that he plays.
Much more than an old-style street footballer, Neymar is someone who has been hot-housed, brought through futsal, identified as someone special from an early age — and, like all gifted players, he has had to come up with a self-defence strategy. In his case it is going to ground — the product of growing up in an environment where a referee was usually present. His dives — often with pirouettes upwards before heading down — can be vexing to the opposition. The emotional tone of the game can rise, and Neymar can get caught up in this — either trying too hard to draw fouls, or becoming irritated when decisions do not go his way.
The diving will probably always be part of his game. What he can change is his behaviour afterward. He needs stronger self-control to avoid getting wound up — which usually leads to even more diving, or crude tackles of his own.
Perhaps the most positive step he could take would be to stop being “Neymar Junior.” The name on the back of his shirt casts him in the role of eternal adolescent. He is not going to regress to the childlike state of a Ronaldinho. But at 26, he can be a fully fledged adult and put adolescent things away.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.