Neymar – Portrait of an Artist

Ciarán Breen revels in Neymar’s wonder strike against early season pacesetters Villarreal and reflects on football as art.

November 8th, 2015 – Camp Nou. The clock ticks over to 85 minutes as Barcelona have finally broken Villarreal down. Luis Enrique’s team hold a two-goal advantage and find themselves heading three points clear at the top of La Liga.

With confidence brimming, Luis Suarez clips the ball in left footed to the edge of the box, where his teammate Neymar has arrived at the end of a sprint from the halfway line. The pass agonisingly evades the first defender, Victor Ruiz, bouncing into Neymar’s midriff, who subtlety cushions the ball in the air just in front of him. In that split second, the Brazilian flicks the ball with his right foot over the head of left-back Jaume Costa, instantaneously spinning 360 degrees anti-clockwise like a figure-skater in mid-flight, to rejoin the ball as it drops just by the penalty spot. With eyeballs popping in concentration, Neymar catches the ball sweetly on the volley and drills it past the helpless Villarreal goalkeeper. Just three seconds have passed from the moment the ball left Suarez’s foot to it nestling in the back of the net, the ball itself dizzy from the ride it has just been on. 

The crowd erupts with rapturous joy and then breaks into a standing ovation filled with beaming smiles and awestruck eyes. Five minutes later the final whistle will blow and those fans will stream out of the Camp Nou talking of only one thing; one goal. A goal they will play over and over in their heads, until it appears online, spreading over social media, to watch again and again, giddy with delight at the picture painted from multiple angles and in beautiful slow motion. 

Emma Whitney recently published, ‘A Brief History of Football and Theatre,’ which explored the visceral connection with the fans/audience that both forms of expression share. Like football, “Good theatre connects with its audience, changing them and thrilling them, making them feel that for 90 minutes, this – the play – is the only thing that matters.

This got me thinking about football as art, and the elements which move us to call it ‘The Beautiful Game.’

Since the weekend, I’ve watched the golazo Neymar scored against Villarreal countless times. I found it difficult to find the words to describe it. Like a painting or piece of music draws you in so you can’t turn away, yet can’t explain quite what it is that enamors you, it left me breathless, imagining what it would have been like to watch live in person. 

Despite the vast sums of money streaming through the world of contemporary football and the resulting high stakes, the means as much as the ends remain precious to those who love the game. It’s why everyone loves to watch the Brazilian national team, even though their methods can end in calamity, such as the embarrassing 7-1 defeat to Germany at the World Cup on home soil. It’s why Manchester United fans, despite being two points off the top of the Premier League after two years of upheaval, chant “Attack! Attack!” in response to what is seen as a conservative, heavy on the eye approach from manager Louis van Gaal. Similarly, as they closed in on the title in April, Chelsea were the target of (possibly unfair) “boring boring Chelsea” chants from the Arsenal faithful at the Emirates.

Professional football is about winning, but it is also about aesthetics and artists, painters and playmakers. Neymar’s magic led directly to a goal, but football is special because players will often do a trick purely in artistic endeavour, moving their side no closer to a goal or victory. Even an audacious cross-field pass from Steven Gerrard or Jonjo Shelvey is made partly out of selfish pleasure. However, I would refer to Eduardo Galeano to justify this selfishness. On his love for the sport exceeding his love for any one team, he said, “I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”

I am not Neymar’s number one fan by a long stretch, but I’ll watch his goal against Villarreal again and again. I’ll respect the artist, for without art, football is nothing.

Follow Ciarán on Twitter @keep_score.

Read more from Ciarán here!

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