Neymar's behavior a worrying sign
Neymar cursed out his Santos coach and teammates in a game
Opinions were divided over the length of Neymar's suspension
Santos chose to fire its coach so Neymar could play against rival Corinthians
A month ago, 18-year-old Brazilian sensation Neymar was hailed as a patriotic hero for resisting the temptation of Chelsea and staying at home with Santos.
The truth was a little less glorious. In return for his loyalty, Neymar was awarded a huge pay rise. Also, the player was convinced by many in the game that it was advisable to show some patience -- his chances of succeeding in Europe would be increased by delaying the move for a couple of years.
Subsequent events would seem to bear this out. Staying with Santos may well be in Neymar's best interests. Whether it proves to be in the best interests of Santos is another matter.
Many at the club will surely be reflecting on this after -- as a direct of consequence of Neymar's behavior -- Santos fired successful and highly respected coach Dorival Junior. The club has paid the penalty for a penalty that Neymar was not allowed to take.
In recent matches, Neymar has failed three times from the spot. So last week, when the team was awarded another penalty, against Atletico Goianense, the order came from the bench for another player to step up. Neymar responded by throwing a tantrum, swearing at Dorival Junior and his teammates.
Clearly, tensions frequently run high in professional sports and harsh words are often spoken in the heat of the moment. This incident, though, seems to have crossed all usual boundaries, as was made clear by the opposing coach, the vastly experienced Rene Simoes.
"What this lad has done is unacceptable," he said. "I'm disappointed. I've always worked with youngsters and I've never seen anything like this. Someone has to educate this kid or we're going to create a monster."
That someone, clearly, should be Dorival Junior. Thoughtful and intelligent, one of the most promising coaches in the Brazilian game, Dorival Junior drew up an analysis of the incident that placed it in context.
"We're all to blame in this case," he said last week. "Unhappily we live in a country where we've lost our references and people act as they please. Institutions such as the family and the education system are not working properly, and there are no positive references for Neymar."
This breakdown in collective urban values was referred to recently in The Economist magazine as Brazil's "new poverty." The more traditional kind -- the battle to get enough to eat -- is receding as the giant country grows its economy.
Neymar clearly does not belong in any conventional definition of poverty. He has been feted and rewarded for his soccer skills for years -- Santos legend Pele has worried in the past that he has been earning too much, too soon. But he stands at the apex of a twisted system of values.
"In our country, the soccer player is deified," Brazilian sports psychologist Anahy Couto said. "They are heroes. And the hero can do anything. Many people don't have the courage to say 'no' to them. They have enormous social power."
The constant sale of its stars makes Brazilian soccer desperate for an idol. When someone like Neymar comes along, he is praised to the skies and surrounded with privileges -- a dangerous recipe for a mind in formation. It is hardly any wonder that he goes off the rails, making it extremely important that he receives "tough love" from his coach. This is what Dorival Junior wanted to administer.
"I don't want to punish for pleasure," he said, "but through necessity. It's fundamental that this happens now. We need to do something to recuperate a great player and a great kid. At this moment, we need to correct a kid who promises to be a soccer sensation."
Neymar was not considered for the weekend's game against Guarani, and Dorival Junior was pushing for a 15-day suspension.
But this created a problem for the Santos directors. On Wednesday, the team would take on Corinthians, the biggest team from the nearby metropolis of Sao Paulo. It's Santos' historic rival. The great Pele scored more goals against Corinthians than anyone else -- he explained that unless he acted quickly, the force of Corinthians' mass support would tip the balance in its favor. For an occasion of such tradition, then, the Santos directors wanted Neymar on the field -- and the only way their wish could come true was by getting rid of Dorival Junior.
It didn't work. It didn't deserve to. Under stand-in coach Marcelo Martelote, Neymar scored -- an efficient penalty-area finish -- and created moments of panic in the opposing defense. But Corinthians won 3-2.
And the point is this: Even a convincing victory would not have justified the course of action that Santos has taken. Straight from the manual of how not to run a soccer club, it has sacrificed the long term in search of insubstantial immediate gain. And now Santos has rendered itself hostage to the whims of a spoiled 18-year-old.
The real winner here is Chelsea, which nearly took Neymar across the Atlantic last month and will probably look to do so again in the future. He is clearly not ready to be part of the giant squad of a major European club, where nobody is guaranteed a place in the starting lineup. Neymar is a major talent, but he has a lot of growing up to do, and someone else is paying while he does it.