"The sadness is great. The pain is immense and the crying is constant. Once again, I (Neymar) will stop for a while doing what I love the most in life, which is playing football. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable because of my style of play. Because I dribble and they constantly hit me.
I don't know if the problem is me or what I do on the field. It saddens me a lot. It saddens me a lot to hear from a player, coach, commentator or whoever the hell it is. 'You really have to hit him'. 'He falls'. 'He cries'. 'A child'. 'Spoiled', etc. It honestly saddens me and I don't even know how much I can bear it. I just want to be happy playing football. NOTHING ELSE."
Football could be anything you want it to be. On one night, it could be like hot knife through butter. Smooth, incisive and satisfying. Football feels like poetry to satisfy the soul. On another night, it could be like undercooked corn on the cob. Coarse, blunt and joyless. Football feels like a vicious cycle of piercing misery.
Neymar and the dark place of social media abuse
Neymar's revealing post on Instagram opened up the joyless and dark place in football. One filled with rancid rancour, bitter hate and the shattering insensitivity of social media abuse.
There is a lot to unpack in this outburst and what it represents. It is perhaps telling that Neymar chose Instagram as his medium of communication. The social networking platform is generally representative of good vibes. Fabulous sunsets. Glamorous photo shoots. Body positivity. And Paleolithic breakfasts. But for Neymar, it must have felt cheerless and plastic.
He even restricted access to those who could comment. A platform with 146 million followers suddenly felt a very lonely place. So much so that even in painful catharsis, he feared derision. Neymar has been subject to unquantifiable trolling and abuse. Some of the terms he chose to highlight are parliamentary. There have been far worse. Criminal and fraud are among the sober and more mentionable. The root cause of this hate - albeit inexplicable - is rather traceable. It relates to his mannerism on the pitch and his Instagram post.
Neymar does have a tendency to hurl himself to the ground. It is a trait that has long been a part of his game. And diving is seen negatively in the congregation of football moralists. The origin of Neymar's such act can neither be accurately placed nor decisively ignored. Why does an unquestionably elite athlete of our generation insinuate? One can only venture to argue an explanation and call for understanding.
Neymar, social media abuse and the dive
Neymar has always been a skinny kid who was better than all his peers on the pitch at all levels. In South American football (as probably in all parts of the world), growing up, you get kicked about a lot if you are a player of Neymar's ilk. Young players are taught to protect themselves from this barrage of merciless attack. Neymar must have been habitually taught the same. Perhaps even to the extent biomechanists call muscle memory.
It cannot be denied that Neymar is a target of unfair means on football grounds. Kicks, elbows, stamps and knees. The sublime refinement of his dribbling and movement has caused him as much pain as delight to onlookers. Neymar had to sit out the latter stages of the 2014 World Cup owing to a smashed vertebrae. Cause? An unwarranted knee on his back by Columbian defender Camilo Zuniga.
His extravagant rolling against Mexico in the 2018 World Cup after being tread on caused great social media uproar. We remember the memes. But forget the context. Neymar raced full speed against time to make it to Russia. In March 2018, he underwent surgery on his right foot for a fissure of the fifth metatarsal. He was tread on the same foot. Why does he exaggerate then? It is perhaps a mixture of muscle memory and call for attention. We learn it as kids. Our parents tend to us if we cry. Similarly, Neymar calls for attention and protection.
It is the grey area of human behaviour. It is fascinating study of psychology. There is no black and white here. It requires time and understanding. And quick judgement is its greatest antagonist. But, not everyone can afford that currency. So, this calls for sensitivity. And that is exactly where this Neymar post against social media backlash is of greater significance.
Social Media abuse - Insensitivity and society
There is a growing belief among football fans that with great money comes bulletproof personalities. That superior talent with a ball makes one immune to every other human emotion. Footballers cop unreal abuse on a daily basis. This has long been the harsh reality of the world's most popular sport. Earlier, the hate was received through posts and mails. Today, it is delivered on social media. Only the medium has shifted.
Neymar's name-calling is only but representative of the unchecked large-scale casualization of language in football. Society, rather. Football fans have historically been demonised in isolation. But these "football fans" are people in society. They represent the culture prevalent in the times. Sociologist Dr Jamie Cleland calls it a societal problem. "Society has become a lot busier. And so social norms aren’t being challenged as they would have been historically. People are getting away with things that they wouldn’t have a generation previously.”
This results in a vicious cascading cycle of hate induction. The educated ignorance of the big social media companies feeds the evil. People abuse because they can get away with it. Never mind internalising keyboard hooliganism as acceptable behaviour. The vice manifolds its poison when one considers the nature of the sport. Football, like any live sport, is designed to thrill and stimulate adrenaline. People suspend their conscious mind and act out of instinct. And if the sub-conscious has normalised insensitivity, the problem becomes a bottomless reservoir of human grief.
Impossible standards and real-time scrutiny
The enabler in our case is the freedom that social media provides. And society equates monetary compensation of footballers to an impossibly strict standard of performance.
Take Neymar's case. He is expected to bring his absolute best every time he comes to work. One must be reminded that his profession is in an environment of direct competition. One where there are counter actors trying to negate the fruits of his performance. And all this is in the public eye, facing real-time scrutiny from the world over.
Imagine working your job and every step you take is monitored by your superiors in real-time. The praise is high for good work but every time you do something deemed unsavory, you are subject to abuse. No matter how well you are paid, it is not a job that will satisfy you. Now, multiply that by the population that watches football.
It is nigh impossible to draw any parallels to the pressure faced by footballers. It is as though they are chained by their very brilliance. There are unquantifiable psychological impacts of the life they lead. Their weekly package do not rid them of normal human emotions of grief and despair. In Shakespeare's words, "fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons."
Football's broken structure in Social Media abuse
Perhaps more cruel is the structure and perception of football. There is a delusional sense of machismo attached to the sport. A hierarchy of masculine superiority. This broken system prevents footballers from publicly talking about issues relating to mental health. Worst still, they are scorned at, called names and not taken seriously.
"We are not robots. We are not machines. Even we go through stuff". Uruguayan forward Santiago Garcia's words send a moving chill down the spine. Especially when taken in context. These were words in one of El Morro Garcia's final interviews before passing due to depression. He was 30 and seemingly successful in football. Derby County footballer Jordan Ibe recently discussed about struggling with depression. There are countless other cases. Some known. Most unknown. It is hardly surprising that a footballer faces normal human issues. It is surprising that they are not treated as normal human beings.
How else does one justify the social media abuse? Almost every footballer of colour is subject to racist slurs on social media. More than 10% of the games in England and Wales last season recorded incidents of hate crime. There was a 150% rise in arrests related to racist or other indecent chants in 2019/20. And football stopped in March last season. Marcus Rashford did not escape the brunt of social media's dark place either.
When it is not racism, it is something else. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta revealed that his family received death threats on social media. Referee Mike Dean had to request leave after his family was also subject to the same disgusting harassment.
Social Media abuse - Fix Society
Footballers need protection. Some from the harsh treatment on the pitch. Almost all from the harsh treatment off it.
"It is simple, if you don’t have proof of identity you can’t open the account (on social media). It would be so much easier to punish the numpties who have nothing better to do." Ole Gunnar Solskjaer suggests an oversimplified solution. However, reality has many sides to cater to. User anonymity is essential for repressed groups under certain regimes. For example, the LGBT people in United Arab Emirates.
There have been multiple organized condemnation of such acts. But none effective. Governments, broadcasters, FAs have all tried their hand. Sometimes they issue statements. Other times, they make fancy social media graphics. There have even been poignant videos.
But, the impact of "internalised disposition" among the fans has been hard to shake off. This involves all of us. Even the ones not engaging in such behaviour. It trickles down from our leaders, our politicians and our influencers. They speak about divide and they practice discrimination. We allow them to be in power. We choose our leaders and we choose our chaos. And people in society think it is okay to be a certain way. Worst still, they perceive it as social or cultural capital. And football is a microcosm of society. The people in and of football belong to a subset of society's Venn diagram.
Social Media abuse - We fight together
The solution is a stretch. And it is probably decades away. Because decades have passed and nothing has changed anything. The promise of politics, the data intelligence of Big Tech and the crusaders of our criminal justice system have all failed. It then falls on our hands. We identify and isolate. Pick the criminal and sort the crime. Block them and ask for punishment. There are two ways of looking at it. Either the monstrosity is overwhelming for two bare hands. Or, we fight for our footballers like they do for us.
If not, the anger will last as long as the wave of a trend. Abuse will go on. Football will lumber on. Life will remain an unfair mirror on human existence. And the sadness, as Neymar puts it, will be great.