Copa America- Why has Brazilian football stopped producing players with flair like Neymar

There is no Neymar for Brazil at this year’s Copa América. 

The 32-year-old picked up an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury playing for his club side, Al-Hilal, in January and will not return until the end of the year.

Brazil has grown used to doing without his services in major championships. He was stretchered off with a spinal injury in their 2014 World Cup quarter-final and missed the semi-final humiliation at the hands of Germany.

Eight years later, an awkward landing in a group game brought a premature end to his 2022 World Cup campaign. He suffered a left knee meniscus injury and needed corrective surgery to fix the problem.

In his absence, while Brazil still has plenty of stars—Vinícius Junior is currently the favorite to win the Ballon d’Or this year, something that Neymar has always aspired to do—none quite match his style of play, with his play-making ability and a rich array of dribbles, feints, and flicks.

Has Brazilian football stopped producing players with flair like Neymar?

A mixed legacy

Whilst Neymar has been called the greatest player in the world, he has not achieved some of the success of contemporaries like Messi or Ronaldo. 

It was precisely to escape Messi's shadow that he persuaded PSG to pay his release clause and engineer the most expensive transfer of all time.

While that may have been good for his bank balance, and his trophy cabinet swelled with all the domestic medals that he won, that does not compare to the Champions League success that his great rivals enjoyed.

His international record is also imperfect. Whilst he did help them win their first Olympic gold medal in 2016—in front of adoring home fans as well—his injury problems have meant that he is often not available when his country most needs him.

A throwback to a different generation

Arguably, Neymar is a throwback to a different generation of Brazilian footballers and is the latest in a long line that includes Garrincha, Pelé, Rivelino, and Ronaldinho.

One crucial difference, though, between those greats was their upbringing. Whilst they all learned their trade at an early age on the streets of Brazil’s barrios, Neymar was brought up playing futsal and was protected from the worst excesses of defenders by the presence of a referee.

His development was overseen by his father, who eventually had a significant hand in his transfer to Europe when he signed for Barcelona from Santos.

The fact that he is not a street footballer means that he did not learn from an early age how to buy fouls without getting injured. Instead, he has acquired a reputation for petulance, with a tendency to complain to match officials when the slightest thing goes against them.

His status as their best player has made him named team captain. However, he has not proved to be a great skipper, he is too concerned with his individual performance than with the collective.

Football has evolved

Whilst some have romantic memories of the Brazil team of 1970—the fact that it was the first World Cup shown in color for many makes it stand out—that was more than fifty years ago, and a lot has changed since then.

Football has evolved considerably in recent years, and now there is much more emphasis on pace, power, and physicality. The number of sprints and high-intensity playing actions performed by players has more than doubled in the past 20 years, while the ball is on play during a 90-minute match 15 minutes more on average than it was in 1990.

As a consequence, the modern player needs to be not only fitter in terms of endurance but also agile, more athletic, and more mentally concentrated if they are to succeed at the highest level.

That means that a player like Neymar, who thrives in possession, just has less time on the ball than some of his peers from yesteryear enjoyed. Instead, he can expect to be closed down rapidly, cutting down the time he has to make the right decision.

And the best teams also expect their players to be good out of possession and to do their fair share of defensive work, neither of which he is renowned for mainly.

Even somebody like Ronaldinho, who twice won the Ballon d’Or, saw his time in Europe cut short as he began to struggle with fitness, and successive coaches criticized his attitude and application. 

Brazilian football’s financial problems

Brazilian football is beset by financial problems. Many clubs are poorly administered, and there are widespread allegations of corruption.

For some clubs, the only way to survive is to sell their best players to overseas clubs, with transfer fees helping to prop up their balance sheets for a while longer.

A change in European law that made it easier for non-EU citizens to trade in Europe helped speed up this process. In recent years, the MLS has become an increasingly popular destination for Brazilian players who are not absolutely top-drawers.

However, for players to be attractive to overseas clubs, they have to be “market ready.” That means they need to have the physicality and attributes to succeed in a top league, and somebody with Neymar's skill set just does not fit the bill.

They also want to take them at an early age. Neymar was comparatively old at 21 when he moved from Santos to Spain. By contrast, Endrick, who has made such an impact since breaking into the Brazilian national team, will join Real Madrid next season having reached his 18th birthday.

Messi joined Barcelona when he was 13 years old and was groomed in their famous La Masia academy, meaning that he already knew how the Catalans liked to play football when he broke into the first team.

European clubs want to take Brazilian footballers early so that they can “unlearn” some of the bad habits that they learned in their home country.

With so much of their young talent being skimmed off, Brazilian football is turning to imports to plug the gaps, recruiting players from elsewhere in Latin America and Africa.

Harsh World Cup lessons

Brazil has also learned the hard way that its “samba style” does not always succeed against the pragmatism of European football. In 2014, it reached the semi-finals of the World Cup on a wave of patriotic fervor, only for its shortcomings to be brutally exposed by a German team in Bel Horizonte, who put seven past it.

Four years later, it was the Belgians who ended their hopes at the quarter-final stage in Russia, and, in Qatar, having promised so much during the group stage, a penalty shoot-out defeat to Croatia meant that yet another team failed to fulfill its potential.

For many Brazil fans, the simple lesson has been – if you cannot beat them, the only way is to join them. Some now see players like Neymar as an unaffordable luxury.

The issue is not just confined to Brazil. There is increasingly less room in the game for the type of player often described as mavericks or labeled as footballing geniuses.

It is just that Brazil has a rich tradition of producing such players that it is almost inevitable to ask when the next one is going to come along.

Download App
view all posts