Neymar and the Olympian Melodrama
By Basil Wilson
A playwright or a screenwriter could not have written a more melodramatic script for the Brazilian super-star soccer player, Neymar. Neymar had chosen not to play in the Copa America Centenario and opted to play in the Men’s Olympic Soccer Tournament in Brazil. Brazil was enthralled in World Cup glory but had never won the gold medal in Men’s Olympic Soccer.
In an epic international tournament, there is tremendous pressure on a player of the caliber of a Neymar. Lionel Messi of Argentina, considered the best player in the world, has yet to win a major trophy for his country. Messi’s team got to the final of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 but lost to Germany. Messi also was instrumental in Argentina getting to the finals of Copa America Centenario in 2016, played in the United States, but Argentina lost to Chile in penalty shoot-outs. Messi was so distraught that he announced that he would retire from international competition. Soccer fans around the world are hoping that Messi will reconsider and make himself available for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
Argentina and Brazil are seen as the two soccer powerhouses in South America. Argentina may not have won a major international competition in the post-Maradona era, but they have been serious contenders. That is not the case with Brazil. Brazil had cultivated the reputation for playing what Pele calls the beautiful game. In recent times their soccer fortunes have declined precipitously. That is particularly the case in the second decade of the 21st century.
Brazil won the World Cup in 2002 with an array of great players like Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Cafu and Roberto Carlos. These were gifted players and would have won irrespective of the coach.
The Dunga years coincided with the decline of Brazilian soccer. In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Brazil was knocked out in the quarter final by The Netherlands. Dunga was subsequently fired and was succeeded by Menezes whose team performed poorly in Copa America in 2012 and was replaced by Scolari. Scolari was the coach of the triumphant Brazilian World Cup team in 2002. Scolari won the Confederation Cup with Neymar in 2013 but the loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals, a 7-1 drubbing, reflected the decline of Brazilian soccer. Scolari was sent packing and paradoxically replaced by Dunga who had another stint of failure. In the Copa America of 2016, Brazil in the opening rounds failed to score a goal and failed to advance. The Brazilian Football Federation promptly fired Dunga for the second time.
At the advent of the Olympics, Brazilian soccer had fallen into a deep crisis. Everything was on the line in Men’s Olympics where the players selected had to be under twenty-three except for three older players. Neymar, Renato Agosto and Weverton were the over twenty-three players selected to bolster the Brazilian roster.
Neymar, the captain of the Olympic team, began the tournament with two scoreless draws against South Africa and Iraq. By the third game against Denmark, the Brazilian Olympic team had found their “samba” rhythm and trounced Demark 4-0 to scramble into the semi-final. Against Honduras, they ran over the Central Americans beating them 6-0. This set the stage for an epic final, Brazil against Germany in the Maracana Stadium, the citadel of Brazilian soccer.
Under the coach, Rogerio Micale, the Brazilian team appeared to have unshackled from the defensive tentacles of the Dunga-Scolari-Dunga era. Brazil played possession football and Neymar surrounded by a talented crew of youngsters, dazzled his opponent in the semi-final and final. In the final, Neymar opened the scoring in the 27th minute with an unbelievable free kick. But in the second half in the 59th minute the Germans equalized and took the match into overtime and then to penalty shoot-outs.
All four Germans and Brazilian penalty kickers scored taking the score to 4-4. Up stepped Nils Petersen, whose penalty was saved by Weverton. The coveted gold medal that had eluded Brazil for decades was now on the line. Neymar had the opportunity to seal the gold medal for his besieged country. Neymar crowned himself in glory in making no mistake in putting the ball in the back of the net. The German demon at least at the Olympic stage had been exorcized.
Neymar, unlike Messi, has the satisfaction that he has won a major trophy for Brazil. At the age of 24, there are other achievable milestones facing the Barcelona and former Santos striker. Brazil is floundering in the qualifying rounds of the 2018 World Cup in which the top four South American teams go through to the World Cup in Russia. Brazil is in sixth place and will play Colombia for a home and away game the first week in September. Under the tutelage of the new national coach, Tite, Brazil led by Neymar must ensure that Brazil is in the runnings to qualify for the Russian spectacle.
The Olympic gold medal may represent a new upward trajectory for Brazilian soccer. Neymar, as he did in the Olympics, has a special role to play in the renaissance of Brazilian soccer on the world stage. Winning the World Cup in Russia would certainly make another classical melodrama in the career of Neymar.