In the wake of the 1-3 Copa victory by FC Barcelona, it seems that only two things happened: a stupefying Messi goal, and a Neymar flick. The reactions are, of course rather different. It’s the latter one that interests me in this post.
Football has long had a black leather-booted code of Things You Don’t Do. When Neymar came to Barça with his collection of tricks and flicks, it was forgotten that Ronaldinho made a name for himself doing such things, because this was different. Why is a good question, but the evidence didn’t take long to manifest itself.
After tormenting Celtic, Neymar found running space with a flicked ball past a defender. Scott Brown resolved the issue by shoving Neymar down, and throwing a kick his way for good measure. It earned a justly deserved red card, but the post-match reaction was more interesting, as too much of football rushed to Brown’s defense.
“Neymar shouldn’t have shown them up.” “He’s a diver. He deserved it.”
When Neymar wound up Atleti, who also reacted with violence, it was again Neymar’s fault.
Gabi had words after the match about Neymar’s behavior, labeling it “irritating,” and the black-booted code said “Yeah!” The assortment of kicks and fouls, an ankle gushing blood from the studs of an Atleti player as a result of one clash, were immaterial. Disrespect was the question, here, and Neymar had it coming. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t try flicks in the kitchen.
In the latest incident, late in the match vs Athletic in the Copa final, he tried a sombrero to escape a tight sideline situation. It failed, and Athletic defenders responded with violence. The black-booted code again.
A great many culers have, of course, said the effect of “Well, he shouldn’t do that in that situation. What does he expect?” And again, the violence is tacitly condoned. A MARCA story quotes Enrique, with interesting bits in bold:
The Barça manager fully understood the Athletic players’ anger after Neymar’s show of unnecessary, fancy football: “In Spain such things are not taken kindly and if I were an Athletic player I would have behaved in much the same way or even worse, but we have to understand that these things are normal in Brazil. We will try to make him understand.”
Now, a lot can be read into that quote, which is the problem. An opponent defender could read it as carte blanche to kick Neymar. “Hell, even his coach doesn’t like it. Get him!” And the number of fouls on one of the most-fouled players in La Liga will grow in number and violence. And why not? He has it coming, with his hair, his Instagram, his … Brazilian stuff.
The black-booted code doesn’t mind a slaloming run that leaves prone defenders in its wake, doesn’t mind a bit of on the ground humiliation from Xavi/Messi/Iniesta humiliation (note the Iniesta flick over the head of the RM defender). Iniesta’s favorite La Croqueta is okay, because the ball stays on the ground? Or is that also “disrespect?”
At what point does football look in the mirror and admit its problems with certain types of players? Back in the day, the careers of players like Diego Maradona were shortened by violence. “If he’s going to have that skill, how else am I going to have a chance. I have to chop him down to my level.” It’s a distressing tendency in the game that has never gone away, and is all the more apparent with Neymar and the way that he plays the game.
He gets fouled a lot because he has the ball a lot. He also gets fouled a lot because he takes on defenders. Would people prefer that he stand on the left and bat the ball back to midfield, unless a clear path to goal — one that doesn’t involve any disrespect — presents itself? And if he doesn’t do that, is the violence okay?
Fouls as a consequence of play are one thing. Fouls because a player is blinded by the red mist are something else entirely. I can’t speak strongly enough about the reprehensibility of the reaction to this latest Neymar incident and to all of them, really. Nobody has that kind of crap coming. Ever. Whenever Iniesta got kicked and chopped down because that was the only to stop him, that isn’t acceptable.
I suppose in the here and now if Barça were to sign Ronaldinho as he was, it would be okay to kick him. “Hey, he shouldn’t do that stuff.” Just because he was smiling when he did it as he successfully perpetrated the notion that he played the game with a childlike joy and flair isn’t a valid reason. Ronaldinho was a thug. All great players are. They want to destroy their opponent. That’s what makes them great. Iniesta is nicer than Ronaldo, but he is no less nasty and desirous of victory. Messi will cut your throat if you block his path to goal. He’s supposed to. It’s what great players do. Destroy, win that psychological battle.
So kick them, which might make them tentative, might make them think, and then a defender gets that little bit of edge back. And the black-booted code says that’s okay, even more so if the player tries some sort of silly, unnecessary flick or trick. Bang the ball off the defender and take the throw, like a man. Or you will be kicked, and it will be okay because you had it coming.
You don’t have to like Neymar to find the violence that tracks him disgusting. You don’t have to like Neymar to not like the comments of his coach after the match, even if you allow for the nuance that maybe, just maybe, Enrique was suggesting that as a hard-nosed player himself, he would have had the same reaction, but that doesn’t condone what happened. Maybe he forgot to say that. Maybe the “he will understand” means that he should just expect to get kicked when he tries that stuff, because that’s the way of the world. Dunno.
What I do know is this: Violence shortens careers. Imagine how close Messi came to something very serious when Ujfalusi decided his ankle was fair game. And don’t come at me with “The two situations are different.” No, they aren’t. Both instances are, at their base, a defender reacting to superior skill with violence. “Try and get past me, will you?”
Fouls are part of the game, even tactical ones. There are retaliatory fouls as well, a “you got ours, so we will get one of yours.” Lots of violence, and it’s all okay. No, attackers shouldn’t be allowed to prance about unfettered. But kicking them because of their skill shouldn’t be okay, nor should wanting to fight because a tenet of the black boot code has been violated. Atleti kicked Iniesta off the pitch last season, and somehow that was okay. It’s never okay. There shouldn’t be some burly dude wearing black boots saying, “He don’t like it uppem, eh? Man’s game!” Would it have been okay for Boateng to clean Messi’s clock after that Bayern goal? No? Of course not.
Then why is it okay for people to display violence against Neymar because he tried a flick?