“I'm not being a killjoy.”
The words of former Liverpool player and anti-fun campaigner Graeme Souness, delivered after he had just spent five minutes being a killjoy. The perpetually unhappy Scotsman had chosen Neymar as the target of his ire, at half time of a game where Brazil were leading South Korea 4-0. The Selecao had been at their brilliant best, scoring, showboating and celebrating with infectious passion. Naturally, Souness was f*cking furious.
Roy Keane joined him on the ITV sofa, a two-man midfield of misery. The ex-Manchester United firebrand wasn’t happy either. He seldom is. The man who once told Mick McCarthy to “stick it up (his) b*llocks” was infuriated at Brazil for the crime of “over-celebrating”, an entirely made up thing peddled by people who think football should be all about sour-faced professionalism. It was not a surprising opinion from someone who self-effacingly hides his medals in a drawer so he doesn’t accidentally enjoy his achievements.
Souness, Keane and others like them maintain football must be approached with all the passion of a gravedigger preparing a rain-soaked burial. Anything less is unprofessional. But football is fun. It always has been. It is a game after all. The dictionary definition of a game is an “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement”. As fans it is taken for granted that we enjoy all this. But players do too, or at least they should.
This is not even the first showboating row that has broken out this season. Antony, a member of Brazil’s World Cup squad, was chastised for a 720 turn he pulled off before fluffing a pass for Manchester United against Sheriff Tiraspol. Paul Scholes was quick to dig at him, unsurprisingly. For a player whose craft was so full of joy, he watches the game like it’s a tape of his wife sleeping with another man. Pure, unadulterated misery.
It wasn’t even just the A-list sad sacks who were upset by Brazil’s box office display against South Korea. talkSPORT rent-a-gob Jason Cundy claimed their dancing celebrations made him “fall out of love with Brazil”. As pointless statements go, that would be like me publicly declaring I had fallen out of love with Margot Robbie. I’m sure Tite and his Selecao will cope without the approval of a man whose greatest achievements are 41 appearances for Chelsea and a cameo in a Michael Buble Christmas special.
Think about the World Cup as a concept and what comes to mind? Roger Milla dancing at Italia 90? Romario’s cradle at USA 94? A Dutch icon Cruyff-turning his way into the history books? Diego Maradona slaloming past the whole England team just because he could, while also punching a ball into a net for the same reason? Over-celebrating and showboating all over the shop with that lot. Keane, Cundy and their ilk would have burst a blood vessel at all of the above. Football is meant to be fun. The World Cup is supposed to be an encapsulation of football. Hence: the World Cup is supposed to be fun.
So where did this commitment to dogged, grumpy professionalism come from? Perhaps it is the fact that the two defining players of this generation, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, have personified the idea of the footballing warrior-monk. The best players used to be rock stars. George Best was called ‘El Beatle’ for good reason, while Diego Maradona was Keith Richards in shorts. But Messi and Ronaldo have leveraged the science of fitness to become incredible feats of football engineering. You only have to look at Keane’s surprising forgiveness for Ronaldo going MIA at United to see how highly valued such self-perfection is these days.
Another facet is the idea of collective responsibility. Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund ushered in an era of well-rehearsed play patterns, relentless pressing and team-over-individual. The latter two managers have carried their innovations into the Premier League, with Manchester City and Liverpool becoming the two best sides of recent years. Suddenly, hard-working, selfless team players like Roberto Firmino and James Milner were in. Rock stars were out.
But Tite hasn’t taken Firmino. His side is a rock ‘n’ roll supergroup to make The Travelling Wilburys blush. Neymar, Richarlison, Raphinha and Vinicius Jr are all blood-pumping crowd favourites. This Brazil side is here to dazzle, whether Keane, Souness and Cundy like it or not. The detractors can moan all they like but Dylan is going electric, and so is this World Cup. And it’s all the better for it.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change