By Karan Mujoo Jul. 06, 2018
What is football if not theatre for the masses? Why is it that we speak about Neymar’s antics, Zidane’s headbutt, and Suarez’s bite with as much fervour as their feints, touches that drop the ball dead, and bull-like tenacity? We love it when our idols fall because then we can devour their pieces.
It is July 4, 2014. Brazil and Colombia are facing each other in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. In the seventh minute, Neymar steps up to take a corner. Thiago Silva scores at the far post. Brazil goes on to win the match 2-1. The nation goes berserk.
But the most crucial moment of the match happens in the 82nd minute. Neymar is about to control the ball with a deft touch when Zuniga, the Colombian right back, smashes into his back with a raised knee. Muay Thai style. The crunch of the third vertebra is only heard by one man, Neymar. He writhes on the floor in agony. Marcelo rushes to him and immediately calls for the doctor. Neymar says he wants to play on. But suddenly he realises that he cannot move his feet. The same feet which dance around defenders leaving them in heaps. The feet which hypnotise the football. They are refusing to listen to him. Neymar is stretchered off and taken to the hospital. Doctors tell him that two centimetres to the left and he would never have walked again.
Cut to 2018 Russia. In Brazil’s match against Mexico, Miguel Layun stomps on Neymar’s foot. Neymar’s reaction is exaggerated. But what else do you expect from a player who had his back broken the last time he played in a World Cup?
In the aftermath of the incident, memes of Neymar flood sites, chats, social networks. He is relentlessly trolled by fans and footballers alike. We rub our hands with glee and forward the jokes.
But haven’t we, as a society, always liked a flawed genius? After all, they are the lubricants of our staid conversations. Kanye West, Cristiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs, John McEnroe, José Mourinho. We love them. We hate them. They drive up the ratings. Give us stories to write about.
Neymar has already been fouled 23 times in this World Cup, the highest number committed on any player. Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
Neymar has already been fouled 23 times in this World Cup, the highest number committed on any player.
Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
But what we forget amid all this din is that they too are human. Money and fame have created the halo of celebrity around them. A teflon coating which is supposed to make them impervious to the world. Which will hide their blemishes and amplify their glory. But what we do not see, is their complete story arc. What they have endured to reach where they have. What they go through every day to stay where they are. They are not human anymore. They are just number of goals, grand slams, hit singles, blockbuster films, company turnovers. And this is what Neymar has become in this World Cup. The only story we want to hear about him is around his theatrics on the field.
But why the fuck does he dive around like a sissy, you ask? Well, to this I say, why do you want him to be perfect? The perfect player with perfect skill and the perfect attitude. A good little boy who conforms to the will of the masses. Whose back was smashed but who should man up and not clown around.
Yet, what is sport if not theatre for the masses. We assemble in the hallowed halls thirsty for controversy. In the 2006 World Cup, our thirst was quenched by Zidane’s headbutt on Materazzi. The graceful midfielder lost his head in a moment of madness and the incident became fodder for the teeming millions. Luis Suarez, the vampire from Salto, bit Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder in a strange display of lust. His previous mon amours had been Ivanovic and Bakkal. A moment of madness again or a crazy streak? Whatever it was, we loved it and lapped it up. The fall from grace of Tiger Woods, Mohammad Azharuddin, and Hansie Cronje is well-documented.
We love it when our idols fall because then we can devour their pieces.
Football, you see, is a game of repetition. You work hard, learn to play the formation, practice the same routines, the patterns of play and hopefully win. But every once in a while comes a player who defies this regimen. Who dances to his own tune. Players who Eduardo Galeano, the famed Uruguayan writer, describes as an idol. A player to whose feet the ball clings as if tied by an invisible string.
In the 2006 World Cup, our thirst was quenched by Zidane’s headbutt on Materazzi. Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
In the 2006 World Cup, our thirst was quenched by Zidane’s headbutt on Materazzi.
Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
Neymar is a player who creates miracles with the ball, and for that one thing is necessary – he must have the ball. He has been branded as a ball hogger, but that is because when he has it, he does what nobody else on the pitch can. Nutmegs that make you gasp. Rainbow flicks which light up the sky. Touches which make velvet seem coarse. But the result of holding on to the ball is that you send out a red-carpet invitation to defenders. And this invitation, in this World Cup, has been answered 23 times. Neymar has already been fouled 23 times in this World Cup, the highest number committed on any player. Most of them delivered by defenders skilled in the dark arts. So why should he not act? Why shouldn’t he try to defend himself with every trick, however right or wrong in the book?
For all the hatred coming Neymar’s way, there is some support too. When asked about Neymar’s antics in this World Cup, the Brazilian World Cup winner and legend Ronaldo said, “He is an intelligent player in his movement and on how to defend himself from being tackled. I don’t think referees have been protecting him enough. When people repeatedly hit me I would feel a sense of unfairness.”
Like you, I also cringe every time Neymar goes down on the slightest touch.
But when he does so, I try and remember his whole story. His broken back.
His love for Brazil. His Puskas-winning goal. His humble origins. His bruised shins.
His talent. His humanity.
So I look forward to watching him in action against Belgium in the quarter-finals. Whether to dive and writhe in agony or to score a goal which will be remembered for ages to come.