HEART OF FOOTBALL

Superstar, petulant kid, flawed talisman - all at the Copa

Brazil’s Neymar, arguing with scorer Jeison Murillo during the match, was sent off for head-butting the Colombian during an altercation after losing the game 0-1.
Brazil’s Neymar, arguing with scorer Jeison Murillo during the match, was sent off for head-butting the Colombian during an altercation after losing the game 0-1.PHOTO: AFP
Chilean national team supporters wearing masks with the image of key player Arturo Vidal, backing him despite his four-month driving ban for driving while intoxicated
Chilean national team supporters wearing masks with the image of key player Arturo Vidal, backing him despite his four-month driving ban for driving while intoxicatedPHOTO: EPA

For a continent of just 10 football nations, South America has always punched above its weight in the global game.

It seems to endlessly produce talents we can only admire, but sometimes they are flawed with temperaments we really should not.

Three names stand out from the Copa Amarica this weekend: Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr and Arturo Vidal.

Justice not always blind

The law seems to struggle to separate stardom from due process. Vidal is spared imprisonment, possibly because his country needs him on the pitch. Neymar feels victimised, on the field and in the disciplinary chamber.

Messi was due to skipper Argentina last night on his 100th appearance for his national team.

Neymar is banned for the remainder of this tournament after his petulance again let down Brazil, although in South America never, ever rule out a change of plan by officialdom bowing to star appeal and rescinding the punishment.

And Vidal? He is lucky to be alive, lucky to be at liberty, and extremely lucky that when he drank at the casino near Santiago on Tuesday, the only thing he wrote off was his beautiful red Ferrari.

He and his wife escaped unscathed from the wreckage, and after the minor inconvenience of appearing before a judge and being banned from driving for four months, he was free to play in the first half of Chile's 5-0 rout of Bolivia at the National Stadium on Friday night.

Arturo made a mistake, said the national team coach Jorge Sampaoli, but it was in his own free time, and the Argentinian added that it is not the coach's job to test his players for alcohol in their blood when they return to camp.

What he meant was Vidal is on fire on the pitch, and this is Chile's opportunity to win the Copa with home passions igniting the team.

Had he been Carlos Nobody, flaunting the drink-driving laws and risking the lives of others on the road, one suspects that forgiveness would have been served behind prison bars.

But these are privileged people, and it was down to Alexis Sanchez, Vidal's team-mate, to suggest that it was up to Vidal to kick Bolivian asses in the stadium. As things turned out, Vidal did not score for the first time in this tournament, and he was substituted at half-time with the game and qualification for the next round already virtually won.

Meantime, Brazil must try to stay in the competition, without its talisman.

Romario, once a temperamental goal-scoring genie and now a senator in the Brazil parliament, has said that Neymar is the one player that the Brazilian people believe in.

They are in that case believing in, and dependent upon, an irresponsible leader. In terms of his gifts (and in the deliverance of 44 goals from 65 internationals) it is hard to overstate Neymar's importance to the world's most populace land of football fanatics.

But is he suited to wearing the captain's armband? The argument goes that Dunga, who was given a second chance to coach Brazil after the debacle of the World Cup last year, gave Neymar the armband to help him grow in responsibility.

The jury is out on that judgment.

Neymar, aged 23, can often be Brazil's inspiration, but seldom looks suitable for leadership. He has been showered with excess ever since Santos signed him and Nike anointed him as the child who would be the next Pele.

The indulgence of Neymar seems never to have helped him outgrow his petulant side. A year ago at the World Cup he was all things - the star, the saviour, the poster boy of Fifa's tournament, and ultimately the victim.

He escaped with a yellow card in the opening match after he elbowed a Croatian player in the face. It looked like petulance, it may well have been retribution for the many kicks he endures - but if it was innocent, there should have been no card, and if it was deliberate the card should have been red.

In a subsequent game, a very nasty quarter-final against Colombia, Neymar was put out of the tournament by a knee into his back so bad it broke two lower vertebrae.

That, too, left a legacy because when Brazil met Colombia again at this Copa, Neymar seemed to be looking for trouble. He was yellow carded for what the referee, Enrique Osses, deemed to be a "Maradona" hand-ball into the net.

After that, disgruntled that the ref was not affording him the protection he expected, Neymar simmered, did not score, and after Colombia ran out 1-0 winners, the child in Neymar erupted. He blasted the ball at one Colombia player, flicked his head towards the face of another, ended up with the red card and apparently even then verbally abused the referee in the tunnel.

The South American confederation then made a mockery of authority. It imposed a two-match ban on Neymar, talked of changing it to one game, then turned it into a four-game ban, ending Neymar's Copa.

The law seems to struggle to separate stardom from due process. Vidal is spared imprisonment, possibly because his country needs him on the pitch. Neymar feels victimised, on the field and in the disciplinary chamber.

It's tempting fate, because Argentina played overnight while this column was going to press, but thank goodness for Messi.

He is Neymar's friend at Barcelona, and it would be to say that Messi gets kicked every bit as much as Neymar Junior does. But Messi's retribution is of a different kind.

I could count on one hand the number of times that Messi has retaliated in any way, other than to humiliate the aggressors with his marvellous footwork, his sway, his goals.

It isn't that Messi is passive, rather that he finds another way to hit back.

Against Uruguay last week, Messi sublimated his thirst for goals by dropping deep to be the hub of creation for Sergio Aguero. "Fortunately, Kun's (Aguero's nickname) goal arrived," said Messi.

"They set out to play a tough game. It was physical, a fight, and we showed we can also play that way. We did not look for it, but we know how to play this way too."

A drunk in a Ferrari. A hot head ruled out of the tournament. And simply the world's best player.

stsports@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Superstar, petulant kid, flawed talisman - all at the Copa'. Print Edition | Subscribe