In Good Conscience

Forget legal trials and travails, savour the uplifting moments

Neymar.
Neymar.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Our senses are battered by the almost daily headlines about lowlifes who are mostly elderly men sullying sports they never played to any great distinction.

What if we ignore them, at least for one day?

OK, you ask, where is the Utopia, the Shangri-La, to escape to?

I'll suggest two: The Mexican Grand Prix two weeks ago. And whatever moved Neymar to score such a memorable, carefree goal for Barcelona last Sunday.

There is something in the air in Mexico City (and I don't just mean that cars, like people, react differently up there, where the altitude is 2,250m) that made the racers heady.

Where is the Utopia, the Shangri-La, to escape to? I'll suggest two: The Mexican Grand Prix two weeks ago. And whatever moved Neymar to score such a memorable, carefree goal for Barcelona last Sunday.

It was the people themselves. Mexico hadn't staged a Grand Prix for 23 years, and now that it had a race to celebrate, something like 130,000 spectators watched the event.

"I've never seen a crowd like this,"? said Lewis Hamilton. "It's like a football game. There are so many people with so much energy and so much excitement for the sport here - all the other countries we go to need to make a big effort to keep up with these guys."

There's the point. It isn't an effort, rather it is in the Latin soul of the people.

Of all the World Cups I have attended, unquestionably the most enjoyable was 1986. The football was maybe not as heavenly as Pele's of 1970 when the World Cup was first hosted by Mexico.

But we were aware that the country had suffered a horrendous earthquake just 10 months before the '86 tournament, and it was an enormous act of faith to stage it, and to be allowed to stage it.

All of us who were there felt the gratitude, the love, the excitement. It transmitted to the players and, while again the scientists could give you explanations like the ball travelling faster through the thin air, I won't ever be told that the beauty of the games had nothing to do with the feelings between players and audience.

The fans were thrilled, and that stimulated the players.

Fast forward from 1986 to 2015. Imagine yourself to be Sergio Perez, the Mexican driver for Force India. He had zero chance to win the race; he finished eighth, yet every time he passed a section of the crowd, huge choruses of the national anthem rang out.

Could he hear them above the growl of F1 engines? Obviously not. But he, and every driver on that circuit, could feel the spirit of the crowd. And, even if the clamour was not for them, the all-conquering Mercedes team fed off the excitement as well.

"Standing in front of the podium in the stadium,"? said Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe, "we could feel what it must be like to win the World Cup."

The circuit there is known as the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, named after the brothers Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez who died in different races in the 1960s and 1970s.

The compulsion succeeds them, and transfers this weekend to Interlagos where the Brazilians Felipe Massa and Felipe Nasr try to carry the mantle of the late, great Ayrton Senna.

But in motor racing, the field has never been more uneven than it is now. Put a Senna, even an Argentine like Juan Fangio in an inferior motor car, and he would struggle to finish on the podium.

Give Neymar or Lionel Messi a ball, and everything is possible.

As I write, Neymar is about to lead Brazil against Argentina in a World Cup qualification match that was rained off yesterday.

Messi, alas, could not play a part, nor could Sergio Aguero or Carlos Tevez, all injured.

In Messi's absence, Neymar has grown in leadership and excelled in responsibility at Barcelona. He has scored in virtually every game, often more than once, and has taken up positions that Messi would command if his left knee ligament allowed.

There is no coach, no tutor, who could have taught Neymar to do what he did with his second goal against Villarreal last Sunday.

He began the move down the left flank by heading the ball to Luis Suarez. By sheer movement, Neymar demanded it back.

He continued his own run into the centre-forward role, beating Villarreal's offside trap by a whisker.

Suarez obligingly returned the ball. Neymar came towards it, controlled it with his torso just above his waistline. Then, smooth as you like, he flicked the ball over his head, and over the head of the closest of two defenders trying to mark him.

At that point, Neymar spun through 180 degrees. One moment, he was facing away from goal, the next, he was free, and looking the goalkeeper in the eye from 12 paces.

That is duelling distance but there was no confrontation. The 'keeper was rooted in the centre of his goal, Neymar simply, sweetly picked his spot into which he curled the ball beyond the goalie and inside the far post.

Exquisite. Instinctive (I think, though, Neymar says he intended to do all of that from the moment Suarez made the pass). And certainly an act of beauty that would defy any amount of defensive planning to prevent.

There you have it, the fans and the drivers communicating enthusiasm in Mexico City.

Neymar stepping into Messi's shoes at the Camp Nou.

There isn't a price you could put on the joy in either place.

And there is no way that old men in suits can wreck it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'Forget legal trials and travails, savour the uplifting moments'. Print Edition | Subscribe