Monday, 1 July 2013

Neymar: The new "O Rei"?

I like Neymar. Why? Because he has come to get international recognition based in South America unlike, for example, Lionel Messi and Radamel Falcao, who have achieved their status as Europe-based players. And it was not overnight. As in previous cases, Neymar is the new Brazilian soccer great promise, annointed  by Pele and courted by big clubs like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, ​​the latter getting his signature recently. Other modern Brazilian stars such as Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, like Messi and Falcao, caught the attention of audiences worldwide whilst playing abroad. 

Neymar won the Copa Libertadores with Santos in 2011 and was voted Best South American Player that year and the next. Those who had not seen him had their chance to do so in the FIFA Club World Cup 2011, which final was precisely the Brazilian team against Messi and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona . It was his first test as an international superstar and could not overcome the powerful Blaugrana, the winners of the tournament. Half a year later, the Olympic Games went to London. Brazil has never won the gold medal in football, it is the only title missing from the "Seleção"'s cabinet, and obviously Neymar was marked as the one to finally bring the golden metal. It was not to be, either. Mexico beat the Brazilians in the final, who must now wait until the games at home (Rio 2016) to see if they could get that elusive prize. 

Along came the signing for Barcelona for 57 million euros, with the fresh memories of these international "failures" that for many it indicates that the player is not ready to face the pressure of big stages. Some people question what his role will be in this scheme built around Lionel Messi. In Brazil, they also wondered if it was wise to sell him just a year before the World Cup at home. These are questions that are still left in the air, but Neymar has no time to lose and must respond to another international call: Being the star of the "Seleção" in the Confederations Cup. 4 goals and two assistances on his personal account, but on a collective level, he assumed the role of leader and eventually dominated the home tournament, being named Best Player in the final where they beat world champion Spain, which has in its ranks many of his future mates.

Three times lucky. Neymar fulfilled expectations at home. He was a prophet in his own land. Now he can leave for Catalan lands knowing that a cycle of his career is complete. We will now see if his status grows to the point of bringing the 6th World Cup to his beloved Brazil in 2014.

Personally, I wish Neymar the best. And I hope that many players in South America follow his steps. They grow here in their land, surrounded by their loved ones and people who help them selflessly. Messi's case is one in thousands. Not all young players do well in Europe. We want to see sooner rather than later, a Ballon D'Or 100% made in South America. It would be great news for this land of woes.

Lio is a much better player, but beware if the title of  Camp Nou Idol is taken by the charismatic and media -savvy Neymar.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Surprises in Copa América:

More than one expert might be asking themselves these questions: What happened down there? Wasn’t Messi playing for Argentina? Doesn’t Brazil have 5 World Cups? Where did all these teams come from? For more than one football supporter, this competition makes no sense without Argentina or Brazil in it. And I ask: Where was Spain 10 years ago? Why does no one question their rise to the top? They of course recognize the amount of work done in the past few years. They can see the amount of stars coming out of that country, who never used to play in a different league other than the Spanish Liga Primera. They are mesmerized by the displays of Barcelona and Real Madrid everywhere and easily discard any rivals that might come their way. And I repeat… how many of those “experts” had the same opinion 15 years ago?

One thing that we can learn from La Roja, is that everything in the world is a process, and success is achieved with work. They did it. And now, South American teams have been doing this for quite some time. Aren’t there Chileans in the Spanish league? Aren’t there Uruguayans in the Italian league? Aren’t there Colombians in the Portuguese League? I beg to differ but this Copa Am
érica is NOT a surprise.

As a South American fan who has been watching the qualifiers for the World Cup for so many years, and always marking the matches against Brazil and Argentina as lost causes beforehand, this is an incredible competition. The “little” teams, the countries that when you mention them to Europeans you have to give them a geographical reference such as Brazil, are improving greatly. The 5 representatives of CONMEBOL all passed the first round in the World Cup, and 4 of them got to quarter-finals. This cannot come as a surprise. The world has been warned! A very organized Peru beats the lately-branded favourites for the Cup Colombia 2-0 in extra time. Very close. A slow but strong Uruguay beats a tired-looking Argentina on penalties. A walled Paraguay beats a talent-filled Brazil that could not score a single penalty in the shootout. A concrete and hungry Venezuela, the one that has never been to a World Cup before, beats the raging Reds from Chile in the 90 minutes.

Of course, you can see the results and tell me this is just luck or an episode of “The Twilight Zone”. But that will be as simplistic and foolish as saying that Spain was lucky in Austria, in South Africa, and pretty much in the last 5-6 years. No, just sit down; watch the matches, then speak. That is all we ask in South America. We, the fanatics that are NOT from Brazil or Argentina.

Richard P
áez, former Venezuelan coach, said in an interview that Brazil and Argentina have forgotten how to play like South Americans. Maybe that is the key for it all. Qualifiers for Brazil 2014 are wide open.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Kaká is not coming: Copa América in the last few years.

There was a time when the Copa América was undoubtedly the most important competition in South America's football zone. However, in recent years we saw a good number of "stars" dropping out of the event. Some because of injuries, others because they never felt the necessity to play this cup when they were after European glory (Champions League, European leagues, etc). Even in 2001, Argentina refused to attend the event because of "security issues". They claimed Colombia, the hosts, could not guarantee the safety of their stars. And Brazil sent a B-team, leaving the Ronaldos, Roberto Carlos, Cafus etc back home. For Peru 2004 and Venezuela 2007 it was already expected that the "canarinha" would mainly send their Brazil-based players. No Kaká - the best player in the world at that time- for the champions in 2007.

So, the oldest continental competition in world football was losing its appeal. The fact that it was played every two-three years and at an "inconvenient" schedule for the European audience, made the best South American footballers prefer to enjoy their vacations and instead put all their efforts in their careers away from this continent.
It is safe to say that Argentina 2011 is by far the most hyped Copa América to date. But what has changed?

First of all: The 4-year wait. We are no longer "saturated" with CONMEBOL competitions. Brazil beat Argentina in 2007 and Messi and co. want revenge on their arch-rivals. Venezuela was a fantastic host. A country whose football tradition is fairly reduced compared to its South American brothers, made sure that the event was unforgettable for fans and players alike and we could say that it turned the Copa América into a global brand. What we see of Argentina 2011 is thanks to Venezuela 2007.

Another important factor is the amount of stars that are playing. Before, we could only recognise names from Brazil and Argentina, but now some of the greatest players in the world come from the other countries in the continent. Names like Diego Forlán, Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani, Alexis Sánchez, Claudio Pizarro, Lucas Barrios, Antonio Valencia, Salomón Rondón and Luis Suárez are as familiar to europeans as Lionel Messi o Robinho. Argentina are hosts and the locals would want their team to win their first major trophy since 1993, plus the fact that the fans still feel that Messi, the best player in the world, still has to prove himself with country.

And global companies are finally responding to this hype. There are now sticker albums, merchandise, and now YouTube announced that they will broadcast all the matches in the competition to a larger audience. There will be no excuses for football fans to ignore what is happening on this side of the world.

All we can say is that South America is the craddle of modern football, and for that we should come up with the most exciting competition in world football. Yes, there are only 10 teams in CONMEBOL and we don't play qualifying rounds for the Copa América, but the beauty of it is that we don't need it. We are fine just as we are. That is why it's OK if the guests -Mexico and now Costa Rica- don't understand the importance of this cup. We do, and that's enough.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Uruguay: Surprised?

When we say Uruguay we think of that other South American country that won a World Cup. More recently we think of Diego Forlan, their antics in South Africa, Suarez’ hand, etc. They were candidates to go out in the first round, but a draw with France and beating Mexico and the hosts meant a pass for the next round. They were, for the first time in years, the best South American team in the tournament. But it came as a surprise to many, and I ask: Why?

Luis Suarez was captain and lead goal scorer in the Eredivisie with Ajax, and now those numbers and his impressive World Cup led him to sign for Liverpool FC. Diego Forlan, probably the most famous Uruguayan nowadays, had a quiet World Cup in 2002 and a bad spell at Manchester United after that. But successful streaks at Villarreal and now Atlético de Madrid put him back on the map becoming one of the most desired forwards in Europe. He almost single-handedly won his team the Europa League and is the main reason Uruguay got to 4th place in the last World Cup, where he was awarded the Golden Ball for Best Player.

Edinson Cavani had a harder time to shine as the third striker in that competition, but his talent did not go amiss to the Napoli directors who signed him this season. And how has it paid off! He is currently the leading scorer in Serie A and has his team in second place, treading on the heels of leaders AC Milan. His teammate Walter Gargano was already a playmaker for the Italian club and was also part of the “Charruas” squad in South Africa.

The back line of Diego Lugano, Diego
Godin, Jorge Fucile, Maxi Pereira and Martin Caceres are also having great seasons at their clubs. Known for their strength and precision, Uruguayan defenders are not afraid to “take one for the team”, that’s why they are a reliable force in the back and were also part of that successful team in the World Cup. Fernando Muslera, their Number 1, is protecting Lazio’s goal nowadays, showing great character and confidence at such a young age.

Completing the team are midfield Supremos Diego Perez, Egidio
Arevalo and Alvaro Pereira. Arevalo is the only member in the squad to still be playing in Uruguay. Perez (Bologna) and Pereira (Porto) are regulars for their clubs.

So, it is very likely we had just been blinded by the lights of Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, and Robinho amongst others, not to see this Uruguayan formidable team coming. And it is set to last. The Under-20 squad had just qualified for the London Olympics after 84 years without attending. Last time they went, they brought home the Gold.

This might be the most exciting
Copa America in years. Of course Argentina and Brazil still got the advantage of history, but never underestimate the “Charrua” courage. We shouldn’t make that mistake twice.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Xavi: The Golden Architect

With the election of the 2010 FIFA Ballon D’Or given to the best football player this past year looming, many are wondering who the winner should be. There’s Messi, unquestionably the best player in the world at the moment; Iniesta, the face of Spain’s triumph at the World Cup; and Xavi, midfielder maestro and team-mate to both of them.

Many criticize and others accept the influence of the World Cup in such election. Messi had an outstanding record-breaking year with Barcelona, but success with his National team, Argentina, is still to be achieved. Some might argue that hadn’t it been for such an unprepared coach like Diego Maradona, Argentina would’ve gone far. But they didn’t. And if a World Cup year is a mayor decider on the outcome of this year’s awards, then Messi would not be repeating as FIFA Ballon D’Or for 2010.

Iniesta is undoubtedly the most celebrated member of the Spanish squad that became World Champions, still receiving standing ovations from fans of other teams in Spain when Barcelona plays away in the league. He didn’t even play all the matches or even score the most goals. He just needed one. And that one goal has put him up on the podium for this award. Unfair for me to say that, you might argue, but after spending half of the season plagued with injuries and even being in doubt of going to South Africa at all, I don’t think his year as a footballer was better than Messi’s or Xavi’s.

And finally, Xavi. The little man from Terrassa that is as Catalan as his club. He is Barcelona, and Barcelona is him. He is the boss of the field. While Casillas was the captain of the hearts in South Africa, Xavi was the captain of the minds. He does the dirty work; he looks for the diamonds in the mines and gives it to the jewellers to make it spark. He is the rhythm section of the orchestra that has become Guardiola’s Barcelona. Comparing his year to Messi’s and Iniesta’s, he played more minutes than the latter and has found more success with the National team than the former.

After many years of this award going to the star of the show, it is time that the producer gets some recognition. Like the jeweller is less without the work of the miner, we might have been deprived of the beauty of Messi and Iniesta’s game if there hadn’t been a Xavi.

Xavi Hernandez, FIFA Ballon D’Or 2010… if there’s any justice in the world.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Ronaldo/Messi: Two sides of the same (Gold) coin

With a new showdown of the famous 'El Clasico' coming our way on 29th November, I dare to give yet another view on the doings of arguably the best players in the world at the moment.

I found a photo of the awards ceremony of the FIFA Best Player of the Year in 2007, and there they were, accompanying the winner that year, Kaka. Since then, both Ronaldo and Messi have won it (2008 and 2009 respectively). It made me think: was Kaka THAT much better then than Cristiano and Lio? Or are there more considerations to the award than just “the skills”? The Brazilian was never to Milan what Messi is for Barcelona or Ronaldo was to Manchester United and gradually becoming to Real Madrid. Their names are almost synonyms of their clubs. They have won every competition available to their teams. Although they also share the stigma of not performing for their own countries – however, last week’s friendly matches might have silenced some of their critics.

And like a coin has two faces, footballing genius comes in two packages: the Good and the Bad. When poised with the question ‘who is the greatest footballer of all time: Pele or Maradona’, some people will not hesitate to choose the Brazilian, mainly because of Maradona’s on and off-field antics. Today, some fans would prefer Messi because of Ronaldo’s arrogant personality.

Pele and Messi seemed to have come in the “Good” package, Maradona and Ronaldo in the “Bad” one. The former were/are part of formidable teams that are highly, and almost heavenly, regarded by the majority (Brazil ’70, Barcelona ’08-’10). The latter were/are the main figure in their teams. Many can recall the starting 11 of that Brazilian team, but not even remember another player from Argentina ’86 apart from El Diego.

An individualistic player receives more pressure from the press, public, other teams, etc., which might explain that necessity to rise above it all and become like a rock, pretend that you are unbeatable. As part of a big team, there is no such pressure or necessity. People will love you no matter what happens to the team. It is not a scientific fact, but just a pattern that has repeatedly appeared in modern football. Pele and Messi are loved, Maradona and Ronaldo are hated.

I tend to believe that Pele’s perfect image was enhanced by Maradona’s bad one, and vice versa. But they were both brilliant players that marked generations of future footballers.

And so are Messi and Ronaldo. With their talent they are influencing the game in general and those who follow it. But with their personalities and personal histories, they are inadvertently feeding each other’s legendary status. Just don’t ask them who’s better!

El Clasico is not supposed to be a match between Messi and Ronaldo. It tends to be more about politics, religion, money… anything but football. But kids won’t care about those things. Their only worry is whose shirt they’re going to wear after: That number 7 or that number 10. Would that mean a lifestyle choice: Good or Bad package? Only time will tell…