A Disrespectful Neymar?

Having got in reasonably late on Saturday night, I managed to catch the last few minutes of the Copa Del Rey final thanks to my Dad’s Sky Sports subscription. Though I missed all 4 of the goals in Barca’s 3-1 win, including Leo Messi’s incredible opener, I did catch what for some reason was judged the game’s most controversial moment.

At this point, there were about 4 minutes left. Neymar collected the ball on the left, and performed what I can only describe as a donkey flick (though the move is apparently known as a rainbow flick) of the ball, causing it to fly over the head of Athletic Bilbao right back Unai Bustinza. The Basque full back didn’t take too kindly to being tricked with such exquisite skill and shoved the young Brazilian over.

Neymar, about to take a penalty for Brazil during the 2012 Olympics

Neymar, about to take a penalty for Brazil during the 2012 Olympics

Chaos then ensued with the Athletic players all giving Neymar a piece of his mind, with a bit of scuffling and what generally counts for “fighting” (unless you’re Bilel Mosnhi) on a football pitch.

This was all a bit “toys out of the pram” stuff – Athletic knew they had lost and clearly felt Neymar had tried to humiliate them. To my mind, that wasn’t his aim – trickery is a big part of Neymar’s game and football is, after all, a game intended to entertain those watching.

Besides the Bilbao reaction, what I couldn’t at all stomach was the reaction of Sky pundit Gerry Armstrong to the Brazilian’s trick. “There’s no need for him to be disrespectful there” were the words which came forth from the sage Northern Irishman.

Sorry, disrespectful? A young man acknowledged as one of the second tier of world class players (the first tier being Messi and Ronaldo) pulled off a wee trick near the end of a match. I found Neymar’s flick rather entertaining – it is the kind of thing I expect world class Brazilian footballers to do from time to time. Armstrong also found time to mention that Neymar had “gone down too easily” having been shoved over by Bustinza.

I must admit I’m not sure why Gerry Armstrong appears on Sky’s Spanish football coverage. He scored that goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup, as well as spending two years at Real Mallorca. Jonathan Woodgate would almost qualify to be a Spanish football expert on that basis. That said, Robbie Savage is in gainful employment as a football pundit, so the standard isn’t exactly high.

In all then, an incident that annoyed me somewhat. Showing skill on the football field, even in a slightly showboaty manner, is not in my view disrespectful or to be frowned upon. Football is in the 21st century an entertainment product competing against myriad others. Discouraging one of its most famous players from doing entertaining things seems to be something of a retrograde step to me, whether that discouragment comes from players on the field or a former player in the press box.

The video of the incident is below – I particularly like Xavi, in what was his last game at the Camp Nou, making sure his young Brazilian cohort didn’t do anything too rash in the face of the pointless tirade.

Brazil 1-7 Germany

Well, I had been planning to do a quick final and 3rd place playoff preview in time for the weekend. But I couldn’t let this incredible result go by without some more detailed thought on it.

For one, I am very pleased Brazil are out. Scolari’s side have played with a cynicism and misplaced arrogance that few Brazilian teams have demonstrated previously. The stereotypical “samba” stylings have been replaced with functionality and an over reliance on Neymar. This cynicism was particularly displayed in the 2-1 quarter final win over Colombia. In that match, Fernandinho was given a mission to kick James Rodriguez into ineffectiveness, a task he largely succeeded in. The refereeing in that game, and throughout the tournament, had erred on the side of lenient towards Brazil and allowed that cynicism and malice to shine through.

Their overwrought and overplayed emotional state has also caused me to take against them, and that state was somewhat responsible for their hammering last night. Tears before and after the penalty shoot out against Chile; tears during the now cliched a capella second verse of the national anthem- these have given the impression of a side more interested in their emotions and their “narrative” than actually playing the game. This mawkish approach was particularly exemplified during last night’s rendition of the Brazilian national anthem, as the absent Neymar’s shirt was held aloft between David Luiz and Julio Cesar. Never mind that Neymar’s injury was ultimately a by-product of his own side’s cynicism against Colombia – Brazil saw themselves as victims in this instance and wanted to make the most of it. That this was probably David Luiz’s most positive contribution to the match tells its own story.

This chap's presence wouldn't have made a huge difference to the scoreline last night.

This chap’s presence wouldn’t have made a huge difference to the scoreline last night.

Until the first goal was scored, the game had been reasonably even with both sides looking dangerous on the attack. That first goal was arguably the worst and certainly the simplest of the seven Brazil conceded – a corner which found Thomas Müller completely unmarked at the back stick to side foot home. Luiz, who was ostensibly marking Müller, threw his arms down at his side in a slight tantrum.

From that moment on, it was clear that Neymar would not be the big miss for Brazil. Rather, it would be Thiago Silva, their captain and Luiz’s central defensive partner. What was obvious as the second, third, fourth and fifth goals were clinically knocked past Julio Cesar in that crazy 6-minute spell was that without Silva, Brazil’s back four and their two defensive midfielders might as well have not bothered turning up, given their abject positioning and continually being caught in possession, ncluding for the goals. It says a lot about this Brazil team that lacking one, admittedly exemplary, defender’s discipline and organisational skills turns their defensive unit to something as useful as mulch.

One man is exempt from that criticism, even as goals six and seven were Schürrle-d past him. Julio Cesar was arguably a bit at fault for Klose’s goal (Germany’s second), palming the ageing forward’s shot back to him, but he otherwise kept the score from being utterly comical and cut a relatively lucid figure while all around him were depositing their heads a reasonable distance away. Cesar is a fine keeper who deserved a better sign-off from his long international career than what he got.

My Brazil diatribe is not to take anything away from the Germans, however. They were utterly clinical, played some beautiful counter attacking, passing football and completely owned the midfield. Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira were particularly excellent, while Schürrle looked a different player from the man who could be rather passive in a Chelsea shirt last season.

Brazil 1-7 Germany. I still can’t quite comprehend that scoreline. Just to demonstrate how bad it was, only Haiti and Zaire have previously been 5 down in a World Cup finals match at half-time. It equalled Brazil’s record defeat (a 6-0 reverse against Uruguay in 1920), and was their first competitive defeat on home soil since 1975. Having enjoyed Brazil’s performances in most of 1994, 1998 and 2002, while understanding that those sides were rather more functional than the 1982 vintage I could see on YouTube, I was glad that this poor excuse for a selecao had been so ruthlessly dispatched.

As for tonight, if the Argentina v Netherlands match gets anywhere near the excitement and uniqueness of last night’s game, I will be delighted. And rather surprised.

The 2014 World Cup so far

Well I don’t know about you, but I really wasn’t expecting this. After the rank turgidity that was South Africa 2010, and the red card festival of Germany 2006, Brazil 2014 has finally provided us with a World Cup to enjoy.

With the group phase at an end, a total of 136 goals have been scored, at more than 2.8 a game. We’ve had a 5-2, a 5-1 and a 4-2, a few 3-2s and more 2-1 come-from-behind wins than you can shake a stick at. One slightly sore point for me is the continuing presence of the joy-sappingly awful Greece in the last 16. But you can’t have it all.

My set-up for the final two Group G games, which I was rather pleased with.

My set-up for the final two Group G games, which I was rather pleased with.

When you compare the 2014 group stage to the dirgefest in South Africa, it becomes even clearer how refreshing this World Cup has been. A mere 101 goals were scored at the end of the 2010 group stage – indeed, 2014 has already beaten the total number of goals scored in South Africa 2010 following yesterday’s two second round games.

There are frankly too many highlights to choose from at this point in time- however I’ll try and do so anyway.

Teams

For me, despite my bias from 1994, Colombia have been fantastic. They have shown attacking verve and creativity, and in James (Ha-mez) Rodriguez have the star man of the tournament thus far. Along with him, I have been very impressed with the effortless running and ability to beat players shown by Juan Cuadrado, and at the grand old age of 38 Mario Yepes seems to have found a new lease of life – his reading of games has been exemplary.

Chile and Costa Rica have also shown that while football is often obsessed with individuals like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (more of him below) in the current era, the sport is still fundamentally a team game. Costa Rica in particular have no star players to speak of  but play with such a firm idea of their collective aims that that lack of individuals is swept to one side. They emerged unbeaten from a group with England, Italy and Uruguay in it – I for one hope that they can see their way past Greece in the last 16.

Finally, it would be somewhat remiss of me not to talk about the efforts of at least one European team. While France have impressed, the Netherlands, and particularly that 5-1 thumping of Spain in their first match, have been an absolute joy to watch. Robin Van Persie’s header against the Spanish was obviously exemplary, Arjen Robben has been absolutely mesmerisingly good, and the Dutch yet again have an embarrassingly impressive selection of youngsters coming through. Daley Blind, Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan De Vrij have excelled at the back, while the wonderfully named Memphis Depay has looked fantastic up front whenever he’s stepped on the pitch.

Players

Another point that has gladdened my heart has been the fact that the big names have turned up, and then some. Lionel Messi almost dragged Argentina through the group stages by himself, scoring the winning goals against Bosnia and Iran, while coming good in the final game with a wonderful free kick effort against Nigeria. Neymar has been imperious for Brazil too, his finest performance coming in the hosts’ eventually comfortable win against Cameroon. Karim Benzema has finally shone at a big tournament as well, getting 3 goals to sit just behind Messi and Neymar who have four apiece.

The Media

As ever, the standards shown by the British broadcasters has been ropey to say the least. The inclusion of Fabio Cannavaro has brought a little more credibility to ITV, along with the wit of Martin O’Neill. However, the presence of Adrian Chiles and Andy Townsend in particular fill me with emotions bordering somewhere between dread and despair.

The BBC, meanwhile, have not used Tim Vickery anything like enough. Listening to a World Football Phone-In podcast today, host Dotun Adebayo raised that very point with him – Vickery very graciously, and in my view wrongly, said there were far better experts than him sitting on the Match of the Day sofa. Vickery has at least been on the TV, bringing insightful video compilations to the fore before each match on the BBC involving a South American side, and has also contributed in the MOTD studio on a few occasions. It was particularly heartening prior to one match (and surprising) to see the BBC talk to Sid Lowe (of the Guardian fame) and Vickery within about 5 minutes of one another.

One man who has surprised me is Danny Murphy, who, although he does come across a little as a dull Scouser, has managed to bring a little more insight and analysis to games beyond saying things like “good pass” or “what a hit,” doing such revolutionary things as keeping track of defensive lines throughout matches and picking out where sides are leaving pockets of space. In the outstanding Germany v Ghana match, he was particularly good, though I was a little perturbed when he said that he hadn’t seen much of Mario Götze but liked him. You can’t win em all I guess.

His fellow Danny, meanwhile, Mr Mills, has said undoubtedly the stupidest thing to emerge from the mouth of a British pundit so far in this tournament. Asked about his views on Luis Suarez’s bite on Giorgio Chiellini (you may have heard about this incident), Mills took the somewhat draconian view that Suarez “should be thrown in jail and locked up forever.” Riiiiight.

What I will say for the BBC is, other than keeping Robbie Savage in paid employment, their coverage on 5 Live has been excellent whenever I have had reason to tune in (usually the walk home from work). 5 Live appear to be getting the balance of talking to expert journalists and ex-players about right, while their commentators, particularly John Murray and Mike Ingham, and much less so Alan Green, continue to be fantastic.

Anyway, as I said, it’s been a wonderful tournament so far, though the last 16 clearly sees the start of the real business of this World Cup. If yesterday’s two games are anything to go by, the quality and excitement provided by the knock-outs may even surpass that of the group stages. Here’s hoping.