‘He [Neymar] tries to over-react a bit to make the defender step off,’ said Mikael Lustig last week. The Celtic defender, referring to PSG’s £200m man Neymar, also noted that if the Brazilian ‘wants to be liked as much as Messi, maybe he needs to stop that.’
Perhaps it is easy to disregard these comments as the bitter complaints of a defender who has just scored an own goal and seen his team concede five times at home to PSG, but Lustig makes an important point. Neymar is the future of football, the flag bearer for the post-Messi and Ronaldo era, but his attitude is raising alarm bells about whether or not he is a suitable role model for the next generation of players and fans.
There is no doubt that Neymar is one of the worlds best. The Brazilian already has four goals and four assists in four Ligue 1 games for PSG, and was involved in 164 goals in his 186 appearances for Barcelona. Away from the statistics it is that fact that he is so exciting to watch, with pace, skill and flair, that sets him apart from so many other players. However, his career has often been marred by controversy and conflict, and it seems that has already begun at PSG.
Neymar has a huge amount of confidence in his own ability, and perhaps rightly so, but there have been times in his career where this mind-set has been detrimental to the team and his rapport with teammates. This was evident last weekend during PSG’s 2-0 win over Lyon, just a month after Neymar’s arrival at the Parc de Princes. The Brazilian came to blows with teammate Edinson Cavani over who was going to take a penalty kick. Cavani ended up taking, and missing, the penalty and the argument between the two players continued into the changing room. According to L’Equipe, ‘It took the intervention of his compatriot and captain Thiago Silva to avoid a physical confrontation between the two Parisian players.’
This is not the only time that Neymar has been criticised by teammates for his selfish attitude. Back in April 2016 when the Brazilian was still at Barcelona, he launched a foul-mouthed tirade at left back Jordi Alba after the Spaniard failed to pass him the ball. Then just a month later, after Barcelona’s Champions League quarterfinal defeat to Atletico Madrid, Neymar was criticised by Javier Mascherano. The defender is alleged to have shouted: “No has de ser tant egoista. Pensa més en l’equip.” (You don’t have to be so selfish. Think more about the team.)
Neymar has claimed that he is not obsessed with winning the Ballon d’Or, but from his display at the Parc de Princes last weekend it seems as if the award may be in the back of the Brazilian’s mind. The danger is that Neymar starts to see himself as the best player at PSG, which perhaps he is, and that this leads to a sense of entitlement, which is already evident from his attempts to claim the penalty. If he becomes fixated on individual statistics and awards (he is 3/1 to finish as the top scorer in Ligue 1) then it will be detrimental to his team’s performances. Four assists in his first four games is a promising counter to this concern, but Neymar needs to develop a healthy relationship with his teammates in order for the team to succeed.
One of the most debated aspects of Neymar’s style of play is his showboating. It is his aptitude for skill moves and fancy tricks that often makes him such an electrifying player to watch, but that also has divided the football community.
For opposing players it can be hugely frustrating to play against, and Neymar is often on the receiving end of a few agricultural challenges. Bolivian international Yasmani Duk, who elbowed the Brazilian in the face during a World Cup qualifier last October, said that ‘Neymar was being a bit too cocky.’ He also provided the advice that ‘to become the best player in the world’ he must ‘start showing some respect for his opponents.’ Former Barcelona player Michael Laudrup also criticised Neymar after a 5-1 win at Leganes last September saying, ‘At 0-4 you can’t be showboating and provoking your opponents.’
Others have come out to defend Neymar’s style, and even Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane acknowledged that ‘in terms of entertainment value, it’s great that people get the chance to enjoy the performances of such a player.’ Neymar himself made it very clear that he isn’t going to change, saying: “I’m happy playing that way and if they don’t like it there’s nothing I can do.”
Nor should he change in this regard, as far as I’m concerned. In a footballing landscape that is increasingly dominated by money and the necessity to grind out results it is refreshing to see players who play with a sense of freedom and flair. Neymar is arguably the most exciting player to watch in world football, and his skills and showboating are a part of that fact. If that is going to teach younger players that they’re allowed to express themselves on the pitch then you’ll see no argument from me.
With regards to Neymar’s theatrically we come full circle back to Mikael Lustig’s comments. When Lustig claims that Neymar ‘tries to over-react’, he is probably referring principally to the art of diving. The Brazilian bagged a goal and an assist against Celtic in his Champions League debut for PSG, but also received a yellow card for simulation. It is not the first time that he has been booked for diving or play-acting, and a number of managers, including a certain Jose Mourinho, have been very public in their criticism of Neymar’s antics.
Simulation is a part of the game that is always going to be difficult to stamp out without the use of video referees and others such officiating aids, and it is always disappointing to see a player attempting to con the referee. However with Neymar’s aforementioned provocative style of play making him a target for fouls, and his speed making it difficult for referees to make instant decisions about whether or not he was fouled, this is always going to be a grey area.
There is no denying Neymar’s talent. He is surely a future Ballon d’Or winner who has all the talent and drive to dominate the post-Messi and Ronaldo era. However, as special a player as he may be, if he wants to be amongst those great players throughout footballing history who were truly loved and respected by fans then he needs to change his attitude. He will shortly be stepping into the spotlight as football’s most famous face, and in order to be a good role model for the next generation he must be mature enough to acknowledge this responsibility.
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