The World Cup in Russia has been rich in entertainment, showing soccer at its best.
But the beautiful game has also been a con game at times, with stars like Brazil’s Neymar frustrating with their theatrics as well as dazzling with their individual skills. Players go down at the slightest touch in search of a free kick or exaggerate a foul to have an opponent punished.
So are today’s crop of young soccer players in Canada going to follow Neymar’s example in attempting to deceive?
“I don’t believe it’s part of our culture,” said former Canadian national team captain Jason deVos, now technical director of the Canadian Soccer Association. “I just think that we’re too honest as Canadians. We view that sort of thing as trying to cheat the game, cheat the referee, try to gain an unfair advantage.”
“The Canadian culture wouldn’t tolerate that sort of behaviour,” echoed Canadian men’s coach John Herdman.
Neymar, who earns 2.7 million pounds (C$4.7 million) a month at Paris Saint-Germain according to L’Equipe sports daily, came under fire for his histrionics in Brazil’s 2-0 round-of-16 win over Mexico.
The Brazilian rolled like a snowball going downhill when Miguel Layun, seemingly maliciously, stepped on his ankle when he went to pick up the ball.
KFC in South Africa ridiculed Neymar in an ad showing a player rolling out of the stadium and through town to a KFC restaurant where he finally gets up and orders with a smile to the tag line “Make a meal of it.”
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, while not naming Neymar, was not so amused as he decried the antics on the World Cup pitch.
“We wasted a lot of time because of one single player,” Osorio said after the game. “I think this is a real shame for football, especially for kids who are watching because this has to be a sport of virility, of determination, a man’s sport, like other games, and not a charade.”
The issue is not always clear-cut, however.
Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney says evaluating incidents like the one involving Neymar in the Mexico game isn’t easy in spite of the bad optics.
“Clearly (Layun) steps on his ankle, but we all know it wasn’t that bad. But how bad was it?” he asked.
Play-acting aside, Neymar regularly takes his lumps when opposing players choose to hack him down to end an offensive threat. Switzerland committed 19 fouls in the opening-round 1-1 tie with Brazil, targeting Neymar 10 times.
And at five foot eight and 141 pounds, the 26-year-old is not exactly built like a brick house.
“It’s a very clear tactic and plan from a player that’s got quite a light frame and is small and gets targeted every game,” said Herdman. “It’s reverse psychology. You kick me, I’m going to roll around, I’m going to try and get you booked.”
Two bookings or yellow cards in the same game means an ejection in soccer.
Herdman remembers robust American striker Abby Wambach looking to get Canadian defender Kadeisha Buchanan booked early in a friendly in Winnipeg in a bid to force Buchanan to pull back on her normally physical play.
“That’s what Neymar does. He’s very smart at it,” said Herdman.
Bobby Smyrniotis, technical director of the highly regarded Sigma FC soccer academy in the Toronto area, says he does not see such misbehaviour from his players.
While it’s a talking point — he says his young charges laughed at Neymar’s antics — it has not translated to the field. Smyrniotis says that has a lot to do with the culture at Sigma, which has sent players like Canadian international striker Cyle Larin at the pro ranks.
“At Sigma we teach our guys to play through challenges,” he said.
“But at the same time we also know it’s important sometimes to know how to draw contact in a game, in a situation, and not let’s say in a simulation aspect. But the art of drawing a foul is also something important, no different than it is in basketball.
“But that’s much different than say the simulations of Neymar and some other guys at the World Cup. I don’t really see that with our young guys, to be honest.”
Vanney says Major League Soccer warns its member clubs before every season about embellishment, with warnings, fines and suspensions used as a deterrent.
“Deceiving the referees and doing that kind of thing is not something that is taken lightly in our league,” said Vanney.
Toronto players rarely go down without cause although former midfielder Armando Cooper, who played at the World Cup for Panama, was notorious for hitting the turf.
Vanney, a former U.S. international defender, says play-acting is not a problem through the TFC academy ranks.
“For us it’s just not been in the culture of how our kids go about doing things so it’s not been an issue for us. And when it is, I can think of one player in particular, they get a good message that it’s not really acceptable.”
While deVos does not think the dark side of the game is part of Canada’s culture, he wonders if it will always be that way. He notes that Canadians can watch more top-level world soccer on TV than they can in Britain so there is no shortage of bad behaviour on view.
“In time perhaps, the desire to win will trump the desire to be compliant with the laws of the game but I don’t think Isaac Raymond, our head of referees, is going to be too happy if I say that,” he said with a laugh. “But you never know. It’s a possibility down the road.
“But I always found in my experience within the national team that we were very by the book, we were very much honest players with integrity that tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played. It would certainly raise the ire of everyone when someone who clearly wasn’t fouled was flopping around on the field as though they had been shot.”
Perhaps Herdman has the most practical view of Neymar and his theatrics.
“I just hope one day we produce a Neymar that gets targeted by other teams,” the English native said with a chuckle.
“That would be the least of my worries, I’m telling you that, if he’s rolling around the field,” he added. “Let’s just produce a Neymar.”
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