Neymar's trickery can take him beyond Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
Tom Adams says Brazil and Barcelona star Neymar is embracing his inner kid again, and it could propel him to the very top of the game.
On Sunday night in Brazil’s Copa America opener against Peru, Neymar scored with a header, took out six defenders to set up Douglas Costa with an assist that would make Andres Iniesta blush and was booked for wiping away the referee’s disappearing spray at a free-kick.
Yet none of these incidents were the most memorable part of his performance.
That came with a frankly obscene piece of skill after 23 minutes which saw him scoop a standing ball over the head of Peru defender Luis Advincula as he came in to challenge the Brazilian. As Advincula spun round to try and make amends, Neymar met the ball on the half-volley with those soft but surgically precise toes and flicked it back the other way over his head again. As Neymar controlled the ball on his forehead and made to sprint away, Advincula embraced full notoriety by thumping his tormentor in the back from behind. It was the only way he could stop him.
This playful Neymar, bent on humiliation, seemingly went into hibernation for a while, but is back with glorious, iconoclastic impudence. This was clear in the Copa del Rey final and now again in the Copa America. It is a thrill to watch Neymar rediscover these elements of his game, elements which could push him to the very summit of football.
After this eventful display against Peru, Neymar was asked about an issue which has seeped deep into football’s consciousness in recent seasons. But when it comes to debates of this nature, Neymar knows his place - and that place is still in the shadow of Lionel Messi. His answer, ventured enthusiastically: “This year the Ballon d’Or already has an owner.”
Well, what else could he say? And in any case Neymar was probably correct so far as 2015 is concerned. But if anyone can break the oppressive duopoly enjoyed by Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the World Player of the Year title, it's Neymar.
Since 2008 the Ballon d’Or has been the personal possession of Messi and Ronaldo, swapping hands between the two players who have the game in thrall. In the 10 years prior to that, though, there were 10 different winners, four of them Brazilian: Rivaldo (1999), Ronaldo (2002), Ronaldinho (2005) and Kaka (2007).
And the next best player in the world could resurrect this heritage. Neymar – a 23-year-old who with 44 international goals for Brazil has already outscored Kaka, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho and will surely eclipse Ronaldo’s 62 with relative ease – looks best placed to join this elite. As Sir Alex Ferguson said in April: "When I had Anderson at United, he spoke volumes about [Neymar’s] ability. So hopefully he'll be the next one who'll produce the type of talent we see in Messi and Ronaldo.”
Copa America-2015 (Alexis Sanchez, Messi, Neymar)Eurosport
If Neymar is to ascend to the level of Messi and Ronaldo, will he do so by embracing what it is which makes Neymar, Neymar or by suppressing the baser instincts of his football nature?
This is a forward who was football’s first viral sensation; the Santos player who became world famous thanks to his YouTube showreel, a dazzling succession of dribbles, goals, feints and tricks accompanied by a Euro dance soundtrack. Sometimes buffering, sometimes pixellated, but always brilliant.
In his first year at Barcelona, Neymar reined in the extravagance. This was a period of quiet assimilation and reverence of Messi. He scored some goals, showed off some tricks, but the circus star of Santos had become a more studious presence. He subjugated himself to Barca’s team ethos.
This season, though, it felt as though Neymar was rediscovering those elements which added so much fantasy to his game. In the Clasico in October he pulled out the rainbow flick which became his trademark in Brazil, though admittedly the ball went out of play. He executed it rather more effectively in the Copa del Rey final – only to be assaulted by criticism for what was seen as an act of gross disrespect.
Athletic Bilbao's defender Xabier Etxeita (3rdL) clashes with Barcelona's Brazilian forward NeymarAFP
Athletic Bilbao captain Andoni Iraola said, “I didn’t find [Neymar’s flick] elegant or sporting”. Perhaps the reaction you might expect from an opponent who has been beaten and quite possibly humiliated. But Iraola found an unlikely ally in Xavi, who turned on Neymar after completing his move from Barcelona to Qatari club Al Sadd.
"I understand people's attitudes to his [rainbow flick] against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa. Some saw it as a lack of respect. Those things in Brazil are accepted, but not so much [in Spain]. He should reflect on it because he's an extraordinary guy, a hard worker and humble.
"But he has this Brazilian trait, which sees such things as part of the show. [In Spain], it looks like a lack of respect."
For Xavi, football is not just a sport but an ideological enterprise. Pass the ball, win matches, but do it a certain way. Strangely, for a man who preaches the importance of entertaining, in his world view there is no room for the kind of free-thinking, avant garde approach that Neymar embodies. Spontaneity is looked down upon; frivolity discarded. And this from a former team-mate of Ronaldinho.
Neymar inspired Brazil to victoryPA Sport
But here's the crux of the matter: Xavi became so great because he became the fullest expression of his own self, his particular set of talents. Neymar must do the same.
Neymar’s brain is hard-wired in a different way, and players like Xavi - for all their ability - don’t win Ballon d’Ors.
The good news is, Neymar won't change. His destiny is sure. Asked to respond to the anger of the Athletic players, Neymar said in May: “They might have been angry, but [the flick] represents my style of play and I’ve been doing it for years. I won’t change my style of play just because it makes others angry.”