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In Defense of Neymar

Much was written and many players and managers praised and condemned during Russia 2018 but it will surprise none that the most discussed player on Twitter at the tournament was one Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior.

Neymar Jr. himself would probably be satisfied with that result - if not the reason behind much of the chatter. It was impossible to avoid his name on the platform when Brazil were on the pitch or following one of their games but the majority of the coverage I saw in English was unforgiving and damning. Viewers objected to his diving (I think his biggest fan would have to grant that there was some play-acting even if they queried the amount). They objected to volume of it, its melodramatic quality and his reaction to officials if the outcome was not to his liking.

As the spectacular rolled on Neymar Jr’s own rolls became the fodder for comical gifs to mock him. Photographs of standing opponents, looking on with amusement while he cowered on the ground, whizzed around the world and users piled-on. Most of this I have no real objection to. For me the Brazilians antics were a low-point in an otherwise wonderful tournament so I had no problem with him receiving criticism for it online. After a while, though, this dismay at his behaviour began to morph into something else: a questioning of Neymar Jr’s actual footballing ability. That’s when I knew things had gone too far.

At the age of twenty-one, Neymar Jr. arrived at Barcelona, the best club in the world, and went onto score fifteen goals in forty-one appearances during his first season. That went up to thirty-nine in fifty-one the following year and, over the course of his time there, achieved a percentage scoring rate of 56%. Not impressed? Consider then that he did not just transfer from a different league but to a different continent and up to football played at a different level from what he had been used to. Factor in also that for most of Neymar Jr’s. time at Barca, he was part of a three man attack that consisted of him and the Golden Boot winners of the 2012–13 season in Lionel Messi and the 2013–14 season in Luis Suárez (won jointly with Cristiano Ronaldo) yet he still managed to score better than a goal in every other game.

His record at Paris Saint-Germain is even better. He arrived with Kylian Mbappé to play alongside Edinson Cavani and there was friction between old star and new but not enough to stop him scoring twenty-eight goals in thirty appearances (93%). And, despite the howls of disapproval for all the writhing on the pitch, his stats for Brazil do not contradict the above trend. At time of writing, he stands third behind Ronaldo (the phenomenon) and Pele (the great) on the list of his nation’s top scorers.

What does all this mean? Simply put, if you are a coach whether national or club and you do not pick Neymar Jr. to play in your side, you have no right to that position and should probably make plans to take your talents to some other sport. Neymar Jr. is not just ‘good’, he is one of the best on the planet and he knows it. Which is why it must have stuck in his craw, even if only a little, that the buzz following the tournament was all about his teammate, Mbappé, and not him. For a world cup set-up as a torch-passing event from the Ronaldo/Messi era to a new one to be illuminated by the most expensive player in the world, the most expensive there has ever been, it must feel like the torch has got lost somewhere.

So, Neymar, as gifted a player as you are, now may be the time to take a look at your all around game.

Leonard Apple.

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