Neymar. If someone were to write the equivalent of Hernan Casciari’s essential “Messi is a dog,” it would be “Neymar is an asshole.” The essential problem with him is perception. It all seems so easy for him, blithe and lithe. People like that irritate us as they gilde through life, even as we should be giddy over the presence of a man who is by streets the second-best player in the game.
He’s the grasshopper from the “Ant & Grasshopper” fairy tale who, instead of needing to beg the industrious ant for shelter and food, has a bigger house, a private jet and a supermodel girlfriend. Neymar is a living, breathing provocation.
Atlético Madrid defender Juanfran said of Neymar, “Personally I wouldn’t do some of the things which he does. I grew up in a different environment. I do things as I believe and he does them as he believes. But it’s not better or worse than his, just different.”
Neymar is “Wheeeeee!” in a game that is mostly a dour endeavor that huffs and puffs and takes itself too seriously. He’s an almost ephemeral wisp of a thing that flits about on the fringes of everything — yet is at the center of it all. His statistics for this past season — key passes, take ons, completed dribbles — are eye-popping even as Neymar is a player who, like all great players, defies statistics. Like Messi, he has an effect on a game by his very presence. Defenders get nervous, coaches shift tactical plans, teammates get a bit more alert because with a player like that, you never know what’s going to happen, when genius will strike. He’s so good that the only viable tactic him is to kick him to a halt.
He runs as if unfettered by gravity, dancing above the surface of the pitch like a capering trickster, stopping, starting, using ball bearing ankles to turn a corner at an absurd angle. Neymar is one of those players people like to knock down by saying, “If he ever reaches his potential … ” without understanding that he already has. Neymar is a collaborator, a symbiotic being who needs teammates. His runs need a terminus for the pass, his dribbles need somewhere for him to put the ball. He isn’t the player to make the full run, a la Messi, then slot home the goal. He’s the player who makes the run that destroys the defense so that someone else can bang home the goal.
This is true even as the perception of him by too many is selfish showboat instead of ultimate associative player, one who, like Ronaldinho, uses his flair for good. Some call it showing off. Yes, Neymar will throw a trick at a lout who batters at him with a bit too much zeal. But the usual reason for what seems like gilding the lily is because that is the most effective path.
When Tiger Woods played golf he hit shots that no other golfer would consdier, a bag of possibilities made larger by prodigious physical ability. When Neymar is running at a defender or trapped on the sideline, the trick is a means to an end rather than the end, a tool that a dazzling player can call upon to become the assassin that he wants to be. “Neymar should score more,” we often hear, but no. Neymar should do what he does — be a catalyst, the nitrous boost that makes the Barça engine hit full speed.
During the past season Neymar grew into a monster as he assumed defensive duties as well as offensive ones, an arc that reached its apogee in the Champions League home leg against Paris St.-Germain. He had a key pass in the first goal, drew the penalty for another, laced in a free kick goal, converted a penalty after which he grabbed the ball and ran back to restart play, his attitude making it clear that there was more work to be done. Then he assisted the Sergi Roberto goal that will live on in club history. Messi was the iconic image, standing amid an exultation-drunk sea of supporters but those seven minutes, that amazing comeback, cemented the place of Neymar in Barça lore.
The crux of Neymar is that he is the anti-Messi. The Argentine is squat, powerfully built and no nonsense. He enters the pitch and his face turns to stone, his only mission is to get from here to there in the most direct route possible. He doesn’t care about the people he destroys — he only cares about team glory. Or so it seems. Notice how many times Messi nutmegs or eviscerates a defender who just fouled him. We cheer it, laud it, say that, “He shouldn’t have awakened the giant.”
When Iniesta wrecks a defender, he is the Illusionista, a magic man who seems to be able to dematerialize with the ball before reappearing, leaving flummoxed oafs in his wake.
With Neymar, it’s different. Opponents don’t like it, Barça supporters don’t like it, journalists don’t like it, in part because Neymar isn’t Barça. Not the Barça that lives on in hearts and minds, the Barça where a couple of players started to sanba after a goal and Carles Puyol dashed in to break it up. Neymar is a different Barça, by association — the sold shirt, Qatar, the late-night deals in a Brazilian back room that have led to court cases and allegations, UNICEF moved to the back of the shirt, marketing. It’s a period that all started with Sandro Rosell and Neymar, as his marquee signing, is inextricably linked with that period.
Neymar isn’t not Barça. Not in the way people want the club to be, the way that it is now impossible for the club to be. Imagine if another, more beloved player hopped in his private jet to help a sibling celebrate their birthday. “Awww, that’s so lovely. That’s the kind of player I want at Barça, because we’re a big family.” With Neymar, it’s different. “He’s letting the team down, jetting off to his sister’s birthday party. He doesn’t care about Barça.”
Every time Neymar touches the ball, he gets kicked. Every time he makes a run, he gets kicked. When Messi got clubbed by a Juventus defender, it was Neymar who cleared out the assailant to protect his friend and idol. And at the end of that match, when so many expected Barça to do it again, Neymar was inconsolable. That’s Barça. Neymar might not be the Barça people want. He’s a modern, NBA-style Barça, the in-your-face descendent of the businesslike sprites who turned passing maps into jigsaw puzzles. He’s an accelerant. But he is Barça. Don’t try to explain him, understand him or slot him into your template. Just watch him dance, and enjoy the privilege.
By: Kevin Williams/@KevvWill