Neymar's petulance leaves Brazil in trouble after Copa America suspension
There were some warning signs flashing in Brazil's Copa America opener against Peru, Neymar's first competitive match as Brazil captain.
He produced a wonderful individual performance in that 2-1 win, crowned with a pass of breathtaking vision that set up Brazil's stoppage-time winner.
It was, I wrote at the time, "as imaginative as it was simple, a touch of calm in tight spaces and decisive moments that, with all due care for proportion, recalls the mature Pele. But Neymar is just 23, and still has some maturing to do. In the first half there even seemed to be a danger that he might not last the 90 minutes. He received a yellow card for wiping away the spray at a free kick, and one wondered if he might pick up another -- he wanted a foul for every challenge against him, and seemed to be on a petulant collision course with the referee."
Three days later, the collision could not be averted -- with consequences that will, unless Brazil's appeal is successful, rule Neymar out of the rest of the Copa America. He was suspended for four games after being sent off in the 1-0 loss to Colombia.
He had already picked up a one-match ban for receiving a second yellow card when he came close to an equaliser against the Colombians. Here he was clearly unlucky. After Colombia keeper David Ospina blocked his header, the ball struck his arm, but this looked like an accident. It did not seem as if he was trying to score an illegal goal.
If this was unfortunate, though, the rest was self-inflicted. This was the first time he had been on the field for a Brazil defeat in a competitive match (their elimination from the last Copa America came after a penalty shootout), and the situation appeared more than he could take.
By the end he was clearly out of control, blasting the ball at one Colombia player at the final whistle, flicking a head-butt at another and then, worst of all in terms of the disciplinary consequences, apparently jostling and insulting the referee.
Why does he act like this? In part, it is a consequence of the football environment he has been brought up in. With his variety of tricks and magnificent capacity to improvise at pace, Neymar might seem like an old-style street footballer, but the sad truth is that this kind of informal football is in decline in Brazil. Neymar was hothoused. There is an important difference here. Informal street, park or wasteland football usually has little in the way of rules. Handball is one of the few infringements observed.
In such an anarchic environment, the gifted young player has to come up with a self-defence strategy. He has to learn to protect himself. In a hothoused reality, there is usually a referee present, who then becomes the skilful player's protector.
This is one of the reasons for the fact that contemporary Brazilian football is obsessed with diving -- the players have come up through futsal or other organised environments where there is always a referee. And Brazil has developed a criteria for fouls that does not exist anywhere else. People are inclined to see minimal contact as an infringement.
Four years ago, for example, in the previous Copa America, Colombia's Carlos Sanchez produced an excellent man-marking job on Argentina's Lionel Messi. It was hard, but fair. Both coaches paid tribute to the duel in the post-match news conference.
On Wednesday, Sanchez produced an even better performance against Neymar, effectively supplying the platform for Colombia to win the game. Sanchez was tough, but fair. Neymar, though, could not cope with being bested in the game's key duel.
This brought out the petulant side of his nature. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that this side of him exists. He is a young man who has had to grow up in public, who has been marked out as unusually gifted from a very early age. A footballer's sense of self-worth is played out there on the field. It must be difficult to be so good that the opposition build their plans on preventing you from showing your talent. There is obvious frustration there -- and, given the way he plays, obvious friction with the referee.
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The unfortunate thing is that at the age of 23 he has clearly not learned to keep a lid on these feelings. This is not only his fault. In October, Brazil played Argentina in a friendly in China. In the course of the match there were a few occasions when Neymar led a group of teammates in jostling the referee. They all should have been sent off.
After the game, coach Dunga should have made it absolutely, publicly clear that, whatever the rights and wrongs of refereeing decisions, this kind of behaviour was unacceptable -- not only on moral grounds, but for the more pragmatic reason that a repetition might be damaging to the team.
Now it has damaged the team. It could have been stamped out in a friendly. Instead it has damaged Brazil's Copa America campaign. And, hopefully, it has given Neymar some food for thought. He has the talent to conquer the world, but first he will have to win the battle against himself.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.