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Lionel Messi and Neymar highlight South American football's idolisation problem

Football is a team sport, but some of the most irresistible narratives in the game are built around individuals.

It is easier to digest moments of heroism rather than an entire season, and it is more romantic to believe that individuals are capable of the greatest sporting feats.

The infectious fairy tale of the sporting superhero is most common at international level, where nations, unable to use the transfer window to create a balanced squad, are most likely to build their hopes around one man.

In England, Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane know the pressure of an expectant nation, while Cristiano Ronaldo has shown phenomenal resolve to handle his disproportionate talent in respect to the rest of the Portuguese national team.

Idolised Individuals

But it is in South America where the cult of the individual thrives most.

The continent has produced the two most famous individuals in football history - Pele and Maradona. Memories of both transcend the idea that football must be a team sport and they have achieved global recognition well beyond that of their international colleagues.

Of course, the idea of the all-conquering individual is older than Pele and has been woven into the fabric of the continent’s football since the early 20th century.

But the unrelenting responsibility placed on their very best players has now reached almost toxic levels.

This was clear for all to see at the 2018 Russia World Cup.

South America

Great Expectations

Having been touted as Maradona’s successor before his eighteenth birthday, the expectation was that Messi would repeat his countrymen’s crowning achievement and win the World Cup single-handedly – an achievement itself that exists more in memory than reality.

Argentina would not have won the 1986 World Cup without Maradona, but it is far from true that Maradona won it on his own. Yet history prefers to remember it that way, and so although his reputation is almost indestructible his achievements are certainly not replicable.

The expectation on Messi to achieve something that only really exists in the imagination is unfair.

The spotlight in Russia was far too bright, and Messi cut a miserable and almost broken figure in the midst of Argentina’s circus of a World Cup, which was followed by the announcement that he would take a break from international football. It was clearly all too much.

Across the border, another superstar seemed to crumble under the pressure of a nation.

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Four years after Brazil paid tribute to an injured Neymar before their semi-final, there was no need for a repeat: Brazil now had a well-rounded squad and Neymar remained fit.

Yet although they emerged from the group stage as favourites, Neymar dominated the headlines for his failure to be the best player on the pitch as fans impatiently waited for him to become the player they were promised – a World Cup winner.

He burst into tears after scoring against Costa Rica, overwhelmed with relief in the hope that perhaps this would quell some of the unrelenting responsibility placed on his shoulders. It didn’t, and ultimately the World Cup served only to enhance his reputation for theatrics.

It is unhealthy for these players to be subjected to such scrutiny, but take away that pressure, that individualism, and the mood changes drastically.

James Rodriguez

A Different Way

James Rodriguez is Colombia’s best player, but there were no shrines or homages to his shirt when he was injured for their World Cup opener, nor for their round of 16 tie against England.

To do so would be to devalue the strengths of their team, while applying unfair pressure on Rodriguez upon his return.

Uruguay, too, were imperious in Russia - up until they faced an even more impressive French side - because they employed the same near-unbreakable cohesion that they have shown for the past decade.

Four years ago, they did not mourn Luis Suarez’s suspension for biting, and Edison Cavani’s injury in Russia was disappointing, but not terminal.

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Both Brazil and Uruguay were quarter-finalists in 2018, but as we look back on the World Cup Uruguay will be applauded while Brazil and Neymar will be subject to inquiry.

While countries must learn the risks of building a squad around the gravitas of an individual, Messi and Neymar’s stories should also serve as a warning as clubs continue to scour South America for the next Messi: as such players are found at younger and younger ages, the same immense pressures that come with being appointed someone’s successor, of being the hopes of a nation, will weigh even harder.

We should enjoy the phenomenal talents of these players while we can, but recognise that even the shoulders of the greatest individuals will break if you press down too heavily.

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