Confederations Cup 2013: Neymar Proved His Genius Against Mexico
I finally saw it on Wednesday afternoon. I had heard about it, of course, and come to believe in it because enough writers and soccer minds I respected had led me to accept its existence.
But, truthfully, I had never seen it myself.
That is, until Brazil defeated Mexico 2-0 in a group match of the Confederations Cup. Finally, I had seen the genius of Neymar.
The Barcelona man was dazzling for Brazil, electrifying the home crowd with blinding runs, threatening attacks and some truly marvelous footwork. It was a sublime performance, and one I had been waiting to witness.
There was his goal, of course, a perfect volley that gave Brazil the lead within the first nine minutes.
For most players, that would have been the highlight of the match. But Neymar is not most players.
His second highlight-reel moment came in the match's waning moments, as he completely embarrassed two Mexican defenders and centered a pass for Jo that the Brazilian forward buried in the back of the net.
It doesn't get much better than that, folks.
But you really can't reduce Neymar's match to those two moments, nor can you reduce it to mere stats—one goal, one assist, 64 total touches, six shots, six dribbles won, 87 percent passing completion and a 9.4 match rating, according to Who Scored—impressive as they were.
No, it was more than that. There was an electricity every time he touched the ball and sprinted down the flank, or ripped a shot that just missed adding to his goal tally.
It wasn't so much what Neymar did, special as that was. It was that you expected him to do something breathtaking each and every time he touched the ball that really resonated.
His brand of genius is a particular one. He's an artist in space, often in wide positions, able to beat defenders with pace, ball control that makes you think he's playing yo-yo with a soccer ball and the imagination and daring to attempt things that most players would never even conjure.
At any moment, he could turn on the accelerator and go wide, cut in to shoot, look to find an open teammate or break down a defender off the dribble.
Mexico's defenders never had a chance.
It's the sort of genius that Cristiano Ronaldo possesses—and to a lesser extent, so do players like Gareth Bale and Marco Reus—though where Neymar has that decidedly Brazilian flair and artistry to everything he does, Ronaldo is a bit more direct and, well, just physically superior to everyone he faces.
There's a sense with such players that the magnificent is about to happen every time they touch the ball, sort of like watching LeBron James run the break or Adrian Peterson burst through the hole.
These are the players that drop jaws, because you don't believe what you just saw.
I suppose we can't have a conversation about genius in soccer without mentioning Lionel Messi, though his signature dish has a slightly different flavor.
Where Ronaldo and Neymar are so frightening when given space, Messi is so often brilliant when he has none at all. You get the impression that Messi could dribble a ball while performing a tightrope act and shoot the ball into a space the size of a basketball rim from any angle or distance on the pitch.
He's MacGyver and Picasso all rolled into one. He could build the Leaning Tower of Pisa with toothpicks. Houdini would chart his every escape from the clutches of multiple defenders.
Then of course, there is the more cerebral genius of the world's technical players, footballers like Neymar's teammates in Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. These maestros play the game like a poet pens a sonnet.
Yes, there is a constant rhythm to their play, the tiki-taka pentameter dictating each move, but there is also a real beauty to be found within their metronomic passes and movement. Such players have the vision and precision to play the perfect pass at the perfect moment to create an opportunity for a teammate.
Dissect their play long enough and you'll see that, like a sonnet, the meter merely organizes the imagery.
Neymar, of course, is free verse, more Walt Whitman than William Shakespeare.
Until Wednesday, I hadn't seen it. I've watched the highlight reels, of course, but who can trust a compilation of a player's finest moments compared to seeing him actually dominate over a full 90 minutes?
Especially when many of those moments came in the Brazilian league. It's hardly shabby football, but not akin to the competition he'll face in La Liga next season.
Even against Japan, Neymar scored from a wonder strike in the third minute, but didn't completely boss that game.
Such was not the case against Mexico. If you watched that game and had the desire to talk about anyone else, you didn't see the same game as I did. From beginning to end, it was the Neymar show.
And perhaps that is the next stage in the evolution of Neymar. The brilliant moments have always been there. We've seen the brilliant games, but can he maintain an elite level consistently, especially over the grind of La Liga and European slate?
We'll find out.
But for now, this is what I know—we throw a term like "genius" around too often, but at least in footballing terms, Neymar's performance on Wednesday lived up to the label. This kid has special, special ability.
And now I feel confident saying that for myself.
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