He was the chosen one by many to replace Cristiano Ronaldo and Leonel Messi as the best player in the world (The Telegraph, 2011). Fast forward 7-8 years, whether you blame it on the multiple injuries, behavioural issues, continuous legal battles, or the refusal on Messi and Ronaldo’s part to give up on their reigns, Neymar’s crowing as the King of Football has been long delayed as we are still left wondering why he hasn’t won the Ballon d’Or even once. There is much debate about his current rank as a footballer – some ranks him right after Messi and Ronaldo, while some places him behind the likes of Luka Modric or Kylian Mbappe for his failure to meet the expectations. There is, however, no debate over a few things regarding Neymar – he is still one of the most talented players in the world that any team would love to acquire, and he is possibly the most famously hated athlete in his sport, if not all sports, for the last few years. While Football has seen many famous divers and cheaters throughout history (e.g. Maradona’s hand of God), never have we seen anyone drawing more negative attention than Neymar, especially since the 2018 World Cup when he became an internet sensation for his diving and overreaction to injuries.
But just how justifying is Neymar’s behaviour?
While Neymar can only blame his own actions for much of the criticism, what is astonishing is the magnitude and longevity of the anti-Neymar sentiment among fans. This will be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t necessarily see Neymar’s diving tendency completely unwarranted. While I never encourage, endorse, or promote any form of cheating in sport and life, I would still argue that certain elements of his motivation to dive is quite vindicated. Yes, Neymar is possibly one of the biggest divers in football today, but he is also one of the most targeted players in the world who is, more often than not, kicked, kneed, and roughed up by defenders who cannot keep up with his speed and dribbling skills. While his unsportsmanlike tendency to dive is well documented, what many people fail to observe is that he has been a frequent subject of punishment and injury at the hands of opponents who could not stop him fair and square. Hence, I don’t really blame Neymar for finding ways to protect himself, be it through diving, overreacting from being taken down, or advocating referees to protect him from being fouled, especially considering he was nearly paralyzed during a 2014 World Cup game when he was left with a broken vertebrae after being kneed to the back by Colombian defender Camilo Zuniga.
So, what is Neymar’s biggest problem?
This leads us to our main discussion. While many would blame this on his diving or faking tendencies, or his overly emotional personality, i.e. he cries too much too often, these are not real factors that has been holding him back. So, why have we not seen Neymar win the Ballon d’Or at least once? And, why is he still trailing behind Messi and Ronaldo after 8 years? The biggest enemy to Neymar’s career progression lives within himself, and they include his lack of emotional intelligence, immaturity, and failure to understand and prioritize his goals.
Neymar secured too much recognition and money too soon
Although there is nothing new about calling a promising young talent the ‘next Pele’ or the ‘next Maradona’, people’s enthusiasm with a teenage Neymar was unlike anything we have seen involving an upcoming prospect before.
- At the age of 17, Brazilian legends like Pele and Romario both reportedly urged for his inclusion to the Brazil Senior team (Azzoni, 2010).
- He won the South American Footballer of the year at the age of 19, compared to the likes of Pele (32), Zico (24), and Socrates (29) who were older during their first acceptance.
- He was transferred from Santos to Barcelona for a then record fee of 57.1 million Euro (40 million of which went to Neymar’s family) at the age of 21 (FC Barcelona, 2013).
- At the age of 22, he was already considered a poster boy for Brazilian football, the best player in his team by a country mile with the weight of carrying his team on his young shoulder, and a five-star attraction of the 2014 World Cup where people were comparing him to Messi and Ronaldo without any reservation despite the tournament being his very first world cup appearance (Bellos, 2014).
Although it is not always so easily visible, his performance and behaviour would often indicate signs of complacency. He was already one of the most famous and richest athletes in the world even before winning a major tournament like World Cup or a European club title. This may have nurtured a form of complacency within Neymar, even at an unconscious level, which may have impacted his motivational climate. In other words, Neymar may have lacked the adequate sense of urgency to win a World Cup or a Ballon d’Or because he was already as famous and rich, if not more, as Ronaldo, Zidane, Messi, or Cristiano Ronaldo who are all far more accomplished than Neymar.
Failure to cope with pressures of expectations
It would be unfair to say that Neymar did not earn any of his early recognition because his performance at youth level was quite unparallel to that of his peers (Transfer Mrkt, 2019). But as one would imagine, such wealth and stardom at an early age did not come without a price, and in Neymar’s case it came in the form of pressure of sky-high expectation, and constant media scrutiny (Bellos, 2014). Although Neymar deserves a lot of credit for managing his career whilst surviving the weight of relentless expectation to perform (because let’s face it, anything short of winning a world cup is a failure to Brazilians), his numerous outbursts at games would suggest he is not above and beyond being human, and is perfectly capable of crumbling under pressure even if from time to time.
Neymar has struggled to understand his own priorities
Neymar’s career has been filled with uncertainties, drama, and chaos – there is always speculations about Neymar’s next move. While this is not unusual for rumours to circulate around famous athletes, it seems Neymar is quite confused about his own personal goals and priorities. He joined one of the biggest Club in the world in Barcelona, to play alongside one of the biggest footballers in the World, Messi, and despite the success, he was not happy in Barcelona after some point. It was reported that he did not want to play second fiddle to Leonel Messi, and he wants his own team (McCauley, 2017). Hence, in 2017, he was transferred to Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in a world record fee of €222 million (BBC, 2017), which many viewed as an attempt to get away from the shadow of Messi that would increase his chances of winning the Ballon d’Or. While Neymar clearly found his own Dominion in PSG, as he was the biggest star in the entire league, not just his team, he soon became unhappy playing in the French League which is considered to be of lower quality compared to Spain, Italy, Germany, or England. Not surprisingly, rumors started circulating about his move back to a Spanish Club (Díaz, 2018).
Such uncertainties have not helped Neymar’s career as he continues his search for career defining moments to cement his legacy. Neymar needs to reflect on his goals and prioritize accordingly, because right now he looks utterly confused as to what he really wants to achieve. He wants to win a World Cup which is the only thing that does not conflict with anything, but everything else seems to be befuddling –
He wants to score lots of goals, win matches and more trophies, nothing wrong with that, but he also wants his own team where he won’t have to share the spotlight. So, he gets his own team in PSG where he would have a better chance of making his case as the best in the world, but wait, he now wants to do that while playing for a big club in a big league, and that is not an easy equilibrium to balance.
Neymar’s Immaturity and lack of emotional intelligence
Neymar breaks down after a 2-0 win against Costa Rica at 2018 World Cup (Photo from FIFA TV)
Apart from faking injuries Neymar’s other famous trademark is crying – he cries when he wins, he cries when he scores a goal, he cries during the national anthem or even while giving interviews, Neymar probably has a crying video on YouTube for every type of human emotion. Although Neymar’s emotional responses could make him an interesting subject of study for biopsychologists, critics and fans have always seen his emotional behaviour a sign of weakness. I am not one of those critics, I don’t believe crying makes one soft, or it is a sign of weakness or poor emotional intelligence. If crying is the most spontaneous way his body responds to a life event, then crying is what Neymar should do, as should the rest of us.
Even when you take away the crying, Neymar has displayed many other sings of immaturity and poor emotional intelligence which has hurt his teams, his performance, and his career growth over the years. During his first season in Paris, Neymar had a conflict with teammate Edison Cavani when the duo clashed over whom to take a penalty kick. This was an incident that was well covered in the media and an indication of Neymar’s lack of maturity.
As for his emotional behaviour, there is nothing wrong with crying after a game whether you are celebrating a hard-fought victory or grieving a tragic loss, there is no excuse for a professional athlete for failing to control own frustration during games or reacting in exaggerated ways that can influence the outcome of games, and Neymar has had numerous such emotional outbursts in competitive games on numerous occasions which have cost him dearly.
Neymar Vs. Costa Rica at 2018 World Cup
In a 2018 World Cup first round game, Neymar’s skills, and emotional intelligence were thoroughly tested by the Costa Rican defense. This was a critical game for Brazil who lost two points in their first game against Switzerland in a 1-1 draw. From an unbeatable goalkeeping performance by Keylor Navas, a frustratingly defensive tactic by Costa Rica, to time wasting and faking injuries by Costa Rican players, Neymar’s patience was put to the test in this game in so many ways. It was almost obvious that the Costa Rican game plan was to waste time and frustrate the Brazilians every way possible, and for the better part of the game this strategy proved to be very effective.
On the 80th minute of what had been a very frustrating scoreless game for Brazil, Costa Rican defender Johnny Acosta fell after being hit by the ball on his stomach during a Brazilian attack, although replays showed that Acosta may have been faking the injury just to waste time. Keen on continuing the play Neymar was trying to move the ball forward, but the referee had stopped the play by then. A frustrated Neymar punched the ball very hard in a moment of severe resentment which did not sit well with the referee, and he was given a yellow card for poor sportsmanship (Marca, 2018).
Although Brazil went on to win the game 2-0, and his yellow card did not make a significant difference in the end, Neymar came very close to suspension throughout the rest of the tournament as receiving two yellow cards would equate a one-game suspension. In the crucial quarter final game against Belgium, Neymar was close to seeing the second yellow card of the tournament for potential diving, which would mean missing the semi-final (Wilson, 2018). Brazil never made it to semi-final, but one can imagine the significance of a scenario of Brazil playing in the semi-final without Neymar. This is a lesson for every footballer in the world – never pick up an unnecessary yellow card that is preventable because you never know when you will get that second yellow card that may not be so avoidable.
2015 Copa America
In a 2015 Copa America game against Colombia, Neymar was red carded for kicking the ball deliberately at a Colombian player, which caused an outbreak between the players resulting in a 4-game suspension for Neymar and subsequently missing the rest of the tournament (BBC, 2018). In Neymar’s absence, Brazil were eliminated by Paraguay in the quarter finals and Neymar missed valuable games at a time in his career when he was healthy and seemed to be in excellent rhythm. Here’s another lesson for the youngsters – never miss games for reasons that are preventable, e.g. suspension stemming from your own bad behaviour, because you never know when you might have to miss games for unavoidable reasons, such as injury, which is what happened to Neymar in the years to follow.
People still remember Maradona’s hand of god as one of the most controversial moments in football history, but people don’t remember Maradona as the guy who cheated to win. The reason Maradona is not defined by his hand of god goal is because he has recorded so many other extraordinary moments and achievements in his career that more than compensated for his cheating moments. Problem with Neymar is, he has not registered enough moments of brilliance in his career that would outweigh and offset everything negative that people associate with him. Neymar needs to realize that he is not going to be remembered as a legend simply because he is famous, and it was his alleged prophecy – he has to work just as hard as everyone else to become the best. While Neymar’s professionalism or commitment to football has never been questioned, he still needs to work on his emotional aptitude, reflect on his career goals, and prioritize his objectives. He needs to realize that the only way to cement his legacy is through performance, and not by fame and fortune. And if he can deliver that people will eventually forget the boy that used to fake injury, dive and cry over everything.
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BBC. (2018). Neymar: Brazil striker banned for Copa America. Retrieved from BBC: https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/33208871
Bellos, A. (2014). All Brazilian Eyes Are on Soccer Savior Neymar. Retrieved from Time: http://time.com/2863230/world-cup-brazil-neymar-savior/
Díaz, J. F. (2018). Neymar still believes in Real Madrid miracle move. Retrieved from Marca: https://www.marca.com/en/football/real-madrid/2018/06/05/5b1587ef46163fad288b4598.html
FC Barcelona. (2013). Detailed figures of Neymar transfer. Retrieved from FC Barcelona: https://web.archive.org/web/20150524082202/http://www.fcbarcelona.com/club/detail/article/detailed-figures-of-neymar-transfer
Marca. (2018). Neymar endured frosty relationship with Bjorn Kuipers throughout Costa Rica match. Retrieved from Marca: https://www.marca.com/en/world-cup/2018/06/22/5b2d0ee346163f7f368b4571.html
McCauley, K. (2017). Neymar wants to make his own team at PSG, not inherit one Lionel Messi built for him. Retrieved from https://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2017/8/4/16071830/neymar-to-psg-transfer-news-salary-lionel-messi-barcelona
The Telegraph. (2011, December 9). Barcelona striker Lionel Messi is world’s best player says Santos striker Neymar ahead of Club World Cup. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/competitions/la-liga/8945338/Barcelona-striker-Lionel-Messi-is-worlds-best-player-says-Santos-striker-Neymar-ahead-of-Club-World-Cup.html
Transfer Mrkt. (2019). Neymar – Career Statistics . Retrieved from Transfer Mrkt: https://www.transfermarkt.com/neymar/leistungsdaten/spieler/68290/plus/0?saison=ges
Wilson, J. (2018). Brazil knocked out of World Cup by Kevin De Bruyne and brilliant Belgium. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/jul/06/brazil-belgium-world-cup-quarter-final-match-report
By Кирилл Венедиктов – soccer.ru, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70149781
By checkbrazil – https://www.flickr.com/photos/3150800[email protected]/6405830033, CC BY 3.0
Image 3: Neymar crying after Costa Rica game
By FIFA TV – taken from video footage of the match from FIFA TV YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2v_mb5Xx00
About the Author
Adlul Kamal is a professional practitioner & researcher in sport and exercise psychology. He has a double master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology from Lund University (Sweden) and Leipzig University (Germany). Adlul has been working in the industry since 2012 and he is a professional member of the Canadian Sport Psychology Association (CSPA). He has worked with athletes in many different sports including Fencing, Soccer, Basketball, Triathlon, Badminton, and Special Olympics Athletes.
Contact Adlul for questions and comments via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or email