Imagine this: You’ve played intense soccer for over two hours, you’re a little injured, and it’s your turn to take a penalty kick. It’s just you and the goalie and the ball between you. If you make it, your team might win. If you miss it you probably lose. And, oh wait, the dreams and hopes and incredibly high expectations of 200 million people, your countrymen no less, are at stake. If you hit the shot, they will celebrate for a day and then expect a more dominant performance in the next game. If you miss and lose, you might become the next Bill Buckner, the next Cubs fan stealing a crucial out from the glove of Moises Alou in Game 6 of the NLCS; you could become what George W. Bush is for American politics. In other words, you could be blamed for a failed war and economic collapse. Even worse than that actually. You might even rather be Bernie Madoff than a Brazilian soccer player who misses a PK to lose his team a World Cup match at home in Brazil. If you click on the hyperlinks above, you’ll understand that all of these references are examples of individuals who are hated so much by some group of people that whole documentaries are made just about why people hate them. So if you’re a Brazilian soccer player, don’t miss a PK at home in the World Cup.
An American visiting Brazil during the 1986 World Cup, held in Mexico, wrote that the atmosphere of the nation during the tournament “could only be compared to the experience of a nation at war.” Imagine being 22 and in the heart of a warzone that everyone in your country and many people around the world is watching closely. It sounds less like a war and more like the Hunger Games. I’ve actually always pictured Katniss Everdeen with Neymar’s flow and blond highlights. And like Katniss, Neymar says, “f**k the pressure” and delivers, time and time again. Both heroes survive within an arena of athleticism and tenacity. Each ends up thriving on the pressure.
The golden boy of the golden-clad nation stepped up on Saturday with the most pressure any 22-year old has ever experienced and stared down Voldemort—(wait, wrong fantastical series and wrong description of handsome and talented Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo). Neymar began to move forward, did a little dance with some samba flavoring sprinkled across the green grass growing in the sun, with the music of his people in the stands and outside in the streets willing him on—please dance for us Neymar! Please, we want to party!—and the young girls and boys in love in that special way that only they can feel, before they are fully self-aware, before anything exists but what is, right here, right on the pitch, the kid with the golden hair and golden shirt, the flair and the flow, gracing the ball at dance’s end through the empty net while the keeper bows—in appreciation we believe for a moment—and can only utter his own name: Bravo!
It’s the coolness of it all that wows: the walkup, the grimace from an injury, the little dance which seems Brazilian and samba and street and acrobatic and ninja, the ball not rocketed, not lofted, but eased into the left side of the net, the swoosh, the few steps to the side and fist pump in celebration with his people, in empathy with every Brazilian. Our struggle is real, in the cities and the small towns, in politics and the social arena, on the field of play against the world’s best, but we can persevere. Moments later, the other hero of the day, perhaps the Peeta Mellark to Neymar’s Katniss–the goalpost of the Brazilian net–saved another rocketed Chilean shot, and the yellow country avoided a national catastrophe and humiliation. Godsent Neymar was once again the hero, along with that goalpost and emotional Brazilian goalie Julio César who made two impressive saves during the shootout.
It was the best match of this year’s World Cup and one of the best soccer matches I have witnessed in my life. The intensity of the stadium and of the packed Mexican-Colombian bar I squeezed myself into in Little Brazil, Manhattan, was infectious and exhilarating. I recently learned that Little Brazil, Manhattan is one street with a few Brazilian restaurants. Try to get into one of those restaurants early on a Brazil match day and, even hours before kickoff, you will either be asked what name your reservation is under before getting laughed away or be told you can buy a standing-room spot for $50. Luckily, the Mexican-Colombian bar was rocking with all the cool-spot rejects like me and the also-yellow Colombianos waiting for their game later that afternoon. Everyone, no matter what team they supported or what district they hailed from, was enraptured by the Brazil-Chile match.
There was one elderly Chilean man wearing his nation’s jersey and constantly chanting “Chi-chi-chi-chi-chi!” rapidly, followed by “Le-le-le-le-le!” just as quickly. He wasn’t popular in the bar, but he was old and seemed to have good intentions so we all treated him like that senile, racist grandparent everyone has. Isn’t he just the cutest! The World Cup’s all about togetherness right? Wrong. It’s about winning and national glory and immortal foot-poets like Neymar. Togetherness and peaceful international fair play is nice and all, but it really does suck to lose, especially as you go further and the stakes get higher.
Another View of the Penalty Shootout:
You have to feel for a guy like Chilean star Alexis Sánchez, who laid his heart on the line for his team every game, scored goals, including the equalizer against Brazil, made beautiful plays out of nothing, and led his team like a champion. Alexis missed a PK that would have kept Chile on par in the shootout, giving Neymar the chance to put Brazil decisively ahead. We can only hope that the 25-year old Barcelona superstar can recover and continue his brilliant career unscathed from the incident.
For his part, Neymar didn’t even play well for the majority of the match, likely due to the injury he suffered after getting tackled hard by Chilean midfielder Charles Arranguiz just minutes into the match. He was still able to kick a perfect corner that David Luiz ended up finishing for Brazil’s only goal and created many chances with his untouchable pace and deft touch.
Neymar showed once agian that he is the best player in the world right now. Sure, Messi is on his level. A great game for Messi is better than an average game for Neymar and maybe even better than a great game for the latter. But Neymar on a bad, injury-plagued day is still amazing, still influential and creative, still precise and clutch. Neymar’s ceiling is, at this point, undoubtedly much higher than Messi’s, and with his recent World Cup form, Neymar is making the case that he is already the best player on the planet. If this World Cup is an early piece of the Brazilian samba prophet’s trilogy, the world can’t wait to see how far his narrative will wind and how epic the next installments will be. Stay thirsty…and hungry…my friends.
by Jake Montgomery