The Neymar Problem

Fresh off a Copa America suspension, Neymar is in everyone's bad graces. But is he to blame, or is it just part of the circumstances that shaped him into Pele's rightful heir?
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Picture this: You’ve been emotionally wrapped in wool ever since you were a young lad, all because you had a rare talent. Every decision your guardians ever made for you was made with the furtherment of that talent in mind. Neither your health nor happiness were necessarily disregarded in the process, but the development of that talent and the rewards it could bring was always paramount. Over time, you’ve gradually been fulfilling those expectations. And then, emphatically, you surpass them. You’ve earned millions of dollars for yourself and your family, in addition to the adoration of your country and industry.

Picture it: You’ve placed your name alongside your field’s most revered names and won its most elite prizes. Now picture yourself being completely unaware that any of this is actually going on. To you, you’re simply doing what you love. Lastly, picture yourself with stupid hair.

You’re Neymar.

Last Wednesday, the 23-year-old Brazilian captain had a mini-meltdown at the end of Brazil’s Copa America group game against Colombia. His actions included mischievously kicking a dead ball at Cafeteros left-back Pablo Armero, headbutting centre-half Jeison Murillo and reportedly berating the match official in the tunnel after the game (he denies doing the latter). Appropriately, Neymar received a red card for his tantrum. However, the sending-off was only phase one of his punishment. On Friday, CONMEBOL announced that he was suspended for his country’s next four games, meaning his Copa America was over. With Brazil moving onto the knockout rounds to face Paraguay, this marks the second major international tournament in a row that Neymar will finish watching from the stands. He was also fined $10,000.

Obviously, it’s not a good look. Neymar’s talent is so transcendent that even the most iconic football nation on the planet looks to him as its fulcrum. Removing him from the tournament damages the Selecao tactically, but far more crucially robs the tournament of its brightest light, Lionel Messi notwithstanding. The grousing has arrived in force. His teammate Dani Alves called him out for hurting the team, while the larger sentiment has painted him as everything from petulant to whiny to, well, kind of a dick. One especially sizzling take accused him of being soccer’s worst role model and while that’s more than a little much, he’s probably closer to that end of the spectrum than being regarded as one of the game’s true sportsmen, whatever that means.  

What needs to be remembered is that most of us will never understand what it’s like to be Neymar. Hell, most of us don’t know what it’s like to be a great athlete full stop. No matter how hard we try to picture it, we can’t come close to actualizing that reality for ourselves. And with Neymar, in particular, that reality extends almost to its absolute limit. He’s as special of an athlete as there is in our expanding sports world, a once-in-a-generation kind both in ability and marketability. Being fixed next to Messi at Barcelona can cloud the former at times, but it shouldn’t. Neymar is magnificent.

***

Of course, this also works the other way: Neymar doesn’t know what it’s like to be us. He probably doesn’t understand financial struggle or professional ineptitude the way we do. People who become famous before they become adults often forfeit volumes of educational life experiences, or at least the kind of experiences we generally deem valuable. It’s understandable: ever since he joined Santos at age 11, Neymar has been Brazil’s wonderboy. “The next Pele” can be an exhausting christening in Brazilian football, but with Neymar, maybe for the first time ever, it didn’t seem too unreasonable. Both he and Pele shared the same developmental route through Peixe and were both prolific goalscorers groomed to lead the Selecao to glory. Such dynastic heirs are usually sheltered by their overseers in order to fulfill their monumental quotas with as little resistance as possible. By design, Neymar’s daily nuisances have been minimized by those around him.

But these ordainments don’t exactly equate to Neymar being a spoiled brat, either. He’s certainly earned his way to the top; how could anyone question his achievements when he’s continually inched his ceiling upward by relentlessly developing new skills and accruing more hardware? Still,  Neymar’s talent is in many ways innate. He inherited the genes of his father, an ex-footballer, and was born in a place where the sport is uniquely extolled, and we “unlucky” types tend to sniff that out like a K9 unit. I’d be rich and beloved too if I drew his hand, we think. It’s easy to make generalizations about famous people, even if they’re often inconsistent and wrong. And, even more when they’re right.

With assistance from his dad/agent and serial image-pushers like Nike, Neymar has positioned himself as a young luminary in every possible way. He’s always been skinny, but fashionably so. His hair has gone from close-cut chic to bleached shark fin to today’s reverse-Pat Riley-with-a-Samba-twist, each ‘do sported at the height of its trend because, well, he’s the one who creates the trends. His demeanor is cool and affable, as if his great fortune is all happenstance, his smiling wonderment just a byproduct of his eternally awesome world. Google any picture ever of the guy, and try to find one that doesn’t scream “hip” or “youthful” or “power.” You can’t. Neymar’s public persona takes the profitable bits of LeBron James, Justin Bieber, and Beyonce and rolls them into the perfect 2015 globo-sports-celeb. He’s a human cultivated to sell things.

These commercially viable characteristics ensure that, until he’s an old, greyed-up has-been, Neymar will always be surrounded by people who nurture and fear him. This isn’t exclusive to Neymar either. Remember Nike brand manager Lynn Merritt, who scolded a photographer for injuring LeBron James’s head during Game 4 of the NBA Finals? Or what about “No Means No” Washington Redskins executive Tony Wyllie, who shepherded quarterback Colt McCoy from a group of “insubordinate” reporters after a 2014 game against Dallas? And that was Colt McCoy; imagine what he would’ve done or said for Robert Griffin III, or a real superstar. People like Merritt and Wyllie exist among celebrities in real and vast numbers. Some of them are personal hirings, some corporate ones, but they all serve the same purpose of shielding the mainframe from the hailstorm outside. Instead of security guards, Neymar walks through his life with a wardrobe of unflappable security blankets over his shoulders. Some call them ‘Yes Men.’

So, when he’s reprimanded for unleashing an intercontinental ballistic missile into Pablo Armero’s back, remember what Neymar is actually experiencing in his head: a world that usually revolves around him reversing its rotation. Neymar hasn’t been built to cope with such a barrage of situational shifts -- the uncalled fouls, the aggressively nagging opponents, the inability to score/win, and, most of all, the unsympathetic authority figure. His universe usually adjusts for him both on and off the pitch. When it fights back, he bends it to his will accordingly.

Even on the rare occasions when he cannot, it’s still not categorized as a traditional failure. No one pinned last summer’s World Cup ouster on him, not when he was sitting out with a broken back. The papers read -- and surely his hangers-on confirmed -- that if he were out there, things would’ve been different. To Neymar, 7-1 was likely more about what his absence meant to the result than what the definitiveness of the loss meant to Brazil. That’s how superstars are taught to reason. They don’t recognize delicacy like we do, even when it’s their own. That’s not what made him Neymar, nor is it what keeps him Neymar.

Before Wednesday, God and Lionel Messi were the only two entities Neymar ever had to defer to. While he’s learned to accept the graces of those two deities as blessings rather than entitlements, he’s still the one and only mayor of Neymarland. Will he mature as he gets older? In some ways, of course. In others, of course not. In the ways you want him to? No. Those are the only expectations he’ll never fulfill.


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