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Neymar: New joy of the common people
As if he had a premonition about losing his crown, just days before the TIME magazine came out with the cover 'Neymar, the Next Pele' last month, O Rei (The King) of football trashed the 21-year-old striker in a scathing interview. Neymar, who plays for Pele's old club Santos, was "too busy colouring his hair than playing", said Pele. Though the article described the Brazilian striker as a "young man hailed by all of Brazil as the Next Pele", it hardly created any ripples here. In Neymar, the Brazilians don't see Pele; they liken him to a forgotten hero called Mane Garrincha.
In a programme on Garrincha's 30th death anniversary in January, Ruy Castro, whose book on the player is considered a classic, said Neymar "reminds" him of Garrincha. "He was not interested in winning the match. He was interested in dribbling, as if football was a big joke, " said Castro. Neymar too appeared in the show, lamenting that he didn't see Garrincha playing. "But I have seen his videos. . . It's a joy to see him play, " said Neymar.
Joy is the word that separates Garrincha from Pele. Their distinctive styles and different tracks their lives took offer parallel narratives of Brazilian football and of Brazil as a nation.
Let's step back into history to trace the two trajectories. In the 1958 World Cup, the Brazilians arrived in Sweden with a reputation for choking in crucial games. In their first two matches as they beat Austria and tied with England, two dark-skinned boys sat on the bench, waiting for a chance. But the team psychologist had sealed their fate by telling the coach that older of the two, Pele, was "too immature" and the younger one, Garrincha, "too indisciplined". As Brazil's next game was against the USSR, which had the legendary Lev Yashin in front of the Soviet goal, some Brazilian players begged the coach to turn loose the two boys. The coach agreed. As the game began, Garrincha began to dribble the ball like a man possessed and Pele tore through the Soviet defence. Brazil won 2-0, with Yashin blocking several certain goals. After the tournament, which Brazil won for the first time, the world was in awe of Pele's power-play and Garrincha's trickery.
Though both of them learnt to play football in slums, Pele was offensive and never missed a chance to score a goal. But Garrincha was happy distracting his opponents by running with the ball glued to his feet;for him, scoring goals was incidental. As he moved across the field like thin air, with his opponents lunging at him and falling flat, Brazilians laughed and cried with joy. After 1958, he became alegria da povo (joy of the common people).
Off the field, Pele educated himself, milked his fame, played for foreign clubs and married celeb girls, Garrincha was happy turning down offers from Europe, getting drunk, cavorting new lovers in Rio's taverns and driving recklessly (he ran over his father once). He was born in poverty and died in penury at 50.
During their playing days, Pele was venerated globally, but Garrincha was the one who was loved at home. He was adored because he was a malandro - on the pitch and in life. In the Brazilian folklore, a malandro is a "trickster" who breaks the rules without being caught. Born poor, the malandro lives by his wits. During the Carnival, he doesn't have money to buy a drum;so he makes a tambourine out of a oil can and beats it with his fingers in such a terrific rhythm that all heads turn to him. In a bar, he tells jokes and stories, and everybody buys him a drink. In the 1950s, when Brazil was one of the most unequal societies in the world, many men lived like this, practising the art called malandragem. They were the real heroes of the unwashed masses.
In the 1930s, when poor Brazilians started honing their football skills in slums, malandragem became a part of their style. As they came from half-famished families, they couldn't play hard-tackle football like the Europeans. Instead, they invented shrewd body movement, back-heel passes and bicycle kicks. These techniques were perfected in other South American countries with similar social fabric. According to Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano, the purpose of this style was to "dazzle and awe" and "the ball was strummed as if it were a guitar, a source of music. "
Though malandragem was part of Brazilian style when Garrincha started playing, but he became the most famous malandro as he converted his deformities into strengths. Physically, he was almost a cripple: his one leg was shorter than the other and both his feet were twisted. As he dribbled the ball with his legs, he moved like a crab, leaving his opponents baffled. He didn't care who he was playing against and focussed on entertaining his fans. In one match, after beating two defenders and the goalkeeper, he waited in front of an open goal for one defender to get back into his position and dribbled the ball past him again and scored a goal. This left his coach fuming, but the fans were ecstatic with joy.
Brazil hasn't produced another malandro like Garrincha. Playing in Europe with multi-million contracts, the new generation of Brazilians play it safe - on the field and in life. Also, rising income levels and declining inequality has made the malandros vanish. Since 2002, when a left-wing government under President Lula came to power, millions have been lifted out of poverty. Brazil is now officially a middle-class country, with boys from Class C - the nursery of football talent - now heading to universities and getting well-paid jobs. The malandro now belongs to books and the malandragem on the field is a distant memory.
But now, with the arrival of Neymar, joy is back on the pitch. The player the global audience see in the internationals that Neymar plays is different from the one that plays for Santos. In local championships, even as Neymar slams goal after goal, he makes everything look joyous - almost a joke - as he teases the rival defenders and goalkeepers with his dribbling and does tricks that remind people of Garrincha.
Neymar is neither a cripple nor reckless like Garrincha, but he has brought joy back into the game. And, like Garrincha, he has refused to play for a foreign club. He has rekindled Brazil's love affair with Garrincha. To call him the "Next Pele" makes little sense here.
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