“Soccer is for pussies”
It’s a refrain uttered by many Australians when speaking about the round ball game, and despite soccer’s increasing popularity, it’s a tough tag to shift.
Maybe it’s because soccer is, and never will be, as physically intense as league, union or AFL. It is true that when it comes to bodies colliding at speed with intent, soccer will never match the other codes. And it’s certainly the case that the prevalence of modern soccer players who dive, roll on the ground to feign injury and shed tears during games has not helped soccer shake the perception that it is less masculine than other sports codes.
But this all stands to change, and it’s from the most unlikeliest of sources.
Brazilian wunderkid/superstar/bloke with a rat on his head Neymar has always been the stereotypical soccer player that GPS-educated Tahs fans love to mock: he falls theatrically whenever he is touched, weighs 64kg and cries liberally throughout games.
And yet, somewhat ironically the serial diver/primadonna Neymar has the chance to salvage soccer’s reputation.
During Friday’s Quarter Final against Columbia, Neymar copped a violent knee to his lower back and left the field with a fractured lower vertebra. The doctors say he was lucky to avoid becoming paralysed. The injury is so severe that he will not play any further part in the World Cup, and won’t be able to touch a football for 40-50 days. Treatment will involve wearing a cumbersome brace ala Forest Gump.
In spite of this, various outlets are today reporting that Neymar may attempt to play in the World Cup Final with a broken back – a little more than a week after the injury occured – should Brazil make it that far.
I’ve never heard of anyone playing professional sport with a broken back. Your back, and your spine in general, is a pretty fundamental part of the human body, and without it, performing pysical tasks becomes quite hard. I’m no doctor, but playing with a cracked vertebra would require a lot of painkillers to ease the pain, and of course you would run the risk of making the injury even worse.
But, what is more masculine than risking death or paralysis in the name of sport? Or even better, in the name of your country? I vividly remember former South African cricketer Graeme Smith batting to save the match as the sun set on the fifth day of the SCG Test, with a severely broken wrist. By risking further injury to an important body part in order to scratch out a draw – not even a win – Smith gained a lot of respect from the crowd, quite a feat given he is South African.
And then there is Andrew Johns who played with a punctured lung in 1997, and John Sattler who played with a broken jaw in the 1970 Grand Final.
But a broken back is a whole different ballpark. If you irreparably break your hand, you’re always got another one. Mess up your jaw, and you’ll probably look like
Nate Myles a Neanderthal for the rest of your life. But sever your spinal cord and you’ll be luck to live, let alone walk or lay claim to having a good quality of life.
Playing through life-threatening injury has long been the sole domain of rugby league, but Neymar has the chance to change all of that.
If he takes the field for the World Cup Final with a broken back, Neymar will not only defy conventional wisdom on the body’s ability to rehabilitate, he will also shatter any residual belief that soccer is a game for pussies.
By Ben Shine