Peeling back the layers of expectation
The weight of…a team
“A player plays for more than himself.” That’s a common maxim echoed throughout dressing rooms across the globe. Players are also expected to play for teammates, families, communities, countries, continents, gods, and local bodega store owners probably. Every player on a World Cup team has shouldered a cross-section of these burdens on top of self-imposed expectations and demanding, perpetually looming coaching staffs armed with lots of professional badges. And the better the player, the more that weight is amplified. If a player is that good, he can become a meal ticket for all involved. All of that weight can rest on a selection of moments and touches. A final touch ending up in a net or in the lap of a cerveza-guzzling spectator can be the difference between being heralded in tribute videos or becoming an internet sensation for all the wrong reasons. This is the burden of performance, the burden of play.
The burden of a World Cup host nation’s social struggles hoisted onto the shoulders of 23 men is a considerable weight to carry. That weight is particularly burdensome when you are Brazil, a nation that inhales soccer as oxygen and exhales expectations of excellence whenever the Seleção suit up for major international tournaments. Add the weight that comes with Brazil serving as tournament hosts with a hyper-informed, opinionated population. The incredible energy that can alleviate weight from players’ shoulders during games, is the same weight that probably contributed to the tears pouring out of Julio Cesar after Brazil beat Chile in penalties in the Round of 16. No team that’s a favorite has its stars—who’ve played in countless enormous, meaningful games—break down into tears after a Round of 16 game. This is the burden of responsibility for a nation’s emotional welfare.
…and the media
Many of those who cover the sport need a hook—a narrative to reflexively rely on to create the overarching theme of a World Cup. In South Africa, the theme oscillated between “Yay! Africa’s first World Cup!” and the simultaneously relevant and patronizing question: “Is it socially and economically irresponsible to host a World Cup in South Africa?” We’ve seen the “socially and economically irresponsible” theme resurface in Brazil amidst protests and example after example of gratuitous government spending gone wrong. To counter the systemic corruption, irresponsibility, and social justice concerns, we’re so often given “There’s a World Cup party in Brazil!” as the antidote. It seemed the only way for the host nation to offset the weight of these heavy themes was to lift the 18-carat gold FIFA World Cup trophy on July 13. The underlying narrative, for Brazil, was that winning a soccer tournament could pacify a nation and cure its ills. Never mind that this narrative ignores a long history of sporting victories only offering temporary refuge, especially absent sustained political and social campaigning (e.g, campaigns against apartheid sport in South Africa involved decades of sustained battles). This “goals saves” narrative doesn’t just sit idly on Al Gore’s internet; it can trickle down to the player level and embed itself in a player’s psyche, especially when outlets are spinning these narratives on heavy rotation. A terrific example of the weight of narratives is the 1994 Colombia World Cup team that collapsed in the first round under a cloud of social, political, and narco pressures. (Watch The Two Escobars if you haven’t already.) This is the burden carried by those anointed as a savior.
…culminated in the snapping of a vertebra that was never meant to carry such a load.
Neymar carried the weight of all of these burdens: the burdens of performance, emotional guardianship, and as savior. He was the porter for the team, the only bona fide attacking talent who conjured up visions of Brazil’s treasured nicknames. He was way more “inho” than the hysterically bland Fred and Jo and, therefore, carried the expectations of a man with a proper Brazilian nickname. He was the caretaker of a host nation’s emotions at a time when social issues, corporate/government corruption, and a nation’s position as one of the World Cup’s favorites converged perfectly. He shouldered the weight of media expectations as writers from far and wide put together the burdens of team and nation and deduced that only Neymar could save Brazil. He was a holy trinity of sorts: Neymar™ was the team, the nation, and savior of all. At some point, his slight 140-something-pound frame had to collapse. At some point, the cumulative burden is too much. No one can meet all of those unrealistic expectations, even if they succeed.
While Neymar’s quarterfinal injury was the result of a rogue knee from Colombian defender Juan Zúñiga, metaphorically, his fractured vertebra may also perfectly symbolize what happens when rogue narratives are lumped on top of real pressures and concerns. Stories of romance and fairy-tale endings hijack real stories of struggle and often leave behind emptiness and sprawling disappointment. Because ultimately, if goals and parties really could save a nation from turmoil, then various government ministries should have restructured long ago. But the story works for commercial interests. A one-size-fits-all savior for Brazilian soccer and social issues is much easier to package—and therefore sell—than thorough examinations of real issues and solutions. One vertebra was never meant to carry that much pressure. But that didn’t stop us piling on the narrative weight.
So now we’re left with the remnants of a broken Neymar, a dismantled Seleção, and an awkward, lingering narrative about the fate of a ball saving a nation from implosion. Everything is broken, crushed under a medley of weights. And yet, everything still exists: Neymar is healing, the Seleção will move on to Copa America, and Brazil is, for better or worse, still the semi-functioning country it was before the Germans put seven goals past Julio Cesar. Are people hurt and angry? Sure. Are there protests? Yup. Will they continue? Probably. But there’s nothing Neymar, despite the narratives, could have done to prevent Brazil from ultimately having to look at itself again. At some point, the distraction was going to end, and the narrative weight, after laying waste to Neymar, the Seleção, and Brazilians, was always going to shift back to the Brazil we’re sadly OK with ignoring, as the cameras move on to the next FIFA-endorsed mega-spectacle. This was the end that was always coming.