Axl is so sensitive and so erratic that even the other members of the band are awed by – and maybe tired of – his “mood swings.” He travels on a separate tour bus, not only because he stays up at night and sleeps during the day but also to reduce friction with the other band members. “Axl’s a real temperamental guy,” says Slash. “He’s hard to get along with.”
From “The Hard Truth about Guns N’ Roses” by Rob Tannenbaum (Rolling Stone, November 1988).
Neymar da Silva Santos Junior is no badly behaved, dressing room destroying monster of rock, despite his wayward moments (effectively forcing the removal of his manager after being refused permission to take a penalty in his Santos days, for example). Nonetheless, his Champions League final-delayed arrival back in Brazil prior to the Copa America in a private jet personalized with the legend “NJR” provided a fitting metaphor for the gulf that separates the Barcelona forward from his international teammates.
Not that there is any evidence of an ego-driven rift in the Brazil dressing room. In contrast, Neymar has always seemed the perfect teammate when with the Seleção – a typically cheery and irreverent young Brazilian male, with a ready grin, interested only in girls, hanging out with his mates, posting photos on Instagram, and, of course, playing soccer.
Instead, the chasm between Neymar and the rest of Dunga’s side comes on the pitch.
“It was like watching two games in one. One between Brazil and Peru, with little to recommend it, and another, when the ball arrived at Neymar’s feet,” wrote legendary 1970 World Cup winner Tostão, after Sunday’s game, when the forward scored one and created the other of his team’s two goals.
Meanwhile Juca Kfouri, one of the country’s leading sportswriters, wrote this week that never in its history has Brazil depended so much on just one player.
Brazil’s dependency on its star striker is becoming the stuff of legend. Until Wednesday night’s loss to Colombia, the team had gone 24 games unbeaten with Neymar on the pitch – without him, in the middle of that run, the Seleção was trounced 10-1 by Germany and the Netherlands over two World Cup games. He is the side’s fulcrum, its heartbeat, the player through whom every attacking move must flow.
That’s partly because of his own brilliance, but it’s just as much because of the limitations of those around him. Brazil is in the middle of a long drought in terms of producing attackers. A year ago at the World Cup, the country that brought the world such picante talents as Ronaldo and Romario served up the undercooked fare of the hapless, static Fred, and his back-up Jô, who promptly embarked on a year-long scoreless run after the tournament.
Both have been decidedly underwhelming at this Copa America.
Nor is there much of a cavalry ready to come off the bench. Everton Ribeiro of Al-Ahli? Robinho, now back home with Santos and seemingly in the twilight of an ultimately unfulfilled career? Both have their merits, but are (literally) leagues away from the quality of attacking player that the squads of Brazil’s Copa America rivals are stocked with – Messi, Aguero, and Di Maria for Argentina; James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado with Colombia; or Chile’s Alexis Sanchez.
It is all a far cry from what Neymar is used to in club soccer, where he plays and trains with players such as Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta, among a dozen other world class talents.
Neymar has it all at Barcelona – a cohesive, established playing system, teammates who demand the opposition’s respect and fear as much as he does and who are able to share in the attacking burden, and what is quickly becoming a nearly telepathic understanding with some of those teammates, most notably Messi.
Just as importantly, Neymar is simply one of the team at Barcelona, conscious of the grandeur and ambition of his surroundings and aware of his place in the established hierarchy.
“The Ballon D’Or has already been claimed (by Messi)…it would be nice to come in the top three,” he said recently, presumably blushing with false modesty.
It has been one of the great lessons Neymar has learned at the Camp Nou – how to play as part of a team, to understand that you are merely part of a larger unit, and that not everything depends on you – and one of the key reasons for his tremendous development over the last year or so, after a couple of seasons where he seemed to have plateaued (albeit at a high level) with Santos.
There, as is often the case with young Brazilian craques, he was the unrivaled superstar, fabulously wealthy, awash with commercial endorsements, and the pin-up for the future of the Seleção. There were more than a few times when the fame seemed to have gone to his head – such as the aforementioned penalty incident.
With the Brazil squad, Neymar must often feel he has returned to his Santos days, feted wildly off the field while placed under an enormous, almost solitary burden on it. Against Peru he played brilliantly, yet, at the same time, trying too hard and unwilling to trust, or even find, the likes of Tardelli or Fred he gave the ball away 17 times in attack and misplaced nine passes, the most on the team.
Against Colombia things were even worse. Neymar spent most of his time running into blind alleys, being buffeted and bullied by the likes of Juan Zuniga and the magnificent Carlos Sanchez, and, worst of all, gradually losing his cool.
This was the petulant Neymar of old, unable to accept that things were not working out as planned. He batted furiously at a dead ball in the first half, grabbed the referee by the shoulder, smacked the ball angrily into Colombian defender Pablo Armero after the whistle, and ultimately more than earned his red card by head-butting (though in truth it was more of a head-nuzzle) Jeison Murillo at the end.
It has been clear at this Copa America that being surrounded by more limited teammates in a side largely bereft of attacking ideas is a world with which Neymar is no longer comfortable. In such situations it falls upon the truly great player to not only redouble his physical efforts, but also to encourage his lesser teammates (lest we forget, Neymar is also Brazil’s captain) and provide an example to those around him, no matter the frustrations or the formidable odds he faces.
Neymar has not done that. He showed plenty of energy and effort against Colombia, but little emotional or psychological fortitude, and at the end, resembled nothing so much as the rich kid who threatens to take his ball home with him when things do not go his way.
Many of us, when returning home for the holidays, revert to the childish behavior of our younger selves. So it is with Neymar at this Copa America. Rather than displaying the maturity of his Barcelona performances, he has instead shown traces of the more egotistical and peevish behavior of his time at Santos.
Perhaps he should take a leaf from the books of other great talents who have suffered the fate of playing on what is so cruelly described as a “one man team,” such as the untouchable George Best, one of the greatest talents to ever play the game, but who, born in Northern Ireland, would never have the chance to grace a World Cup.
There are more modern examples too, such as Wales and Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs or Finland great Jari Litmanen.
The enormous pressures of playing for Brazil, with those five World Cups glinting metaphorically from the trophy cabinet, are obviously rather different from representing Northern Ireland or Finland. Nonetheless, if Neymar wishes to become the truly great player that he is surely destined to be, he must learn to value dignity and humility as much as he does step-overs and hat tricks.