Neymar. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/ZHONG ZHENBIN
Neymar. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/ZHONG ZHENBIN

Who knew? Brazilian striker Neymar has worn his hair in 45 noteworthy styles, according to Menhairstylist.com.

There is the "high and gelled haircut" — think sultry parakeet — which he brought back from infamy, and the "Mohawk with highlights", which the site tells us "also leaves his neck tattoo exposed, which is a plus".

But Neymar and the Brazilian football team have left the World Cup in Russia after being knocked out 2-1 by Belgium. Apparently haircuts don’t necessarily bolster on-field performance. (I’m resisting the temptation to say: "Just look at Bafana Bafana.")

Neymar did have his moment of glory on a SuperSport billboard advertising the World Cup somewhere on Joburg’s M1. At his side on this hopeful but wildly off-point advertising fantasy were Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Germany’s Mesut Özil, all of whom will watch the final on the couch, just like you and me. (I’m resisting the temptation to say: "Just like Bafana Bafana.")

With so many heavyweight club players and their fancied teams absent from the business end of the tournament, the search is on for a profound explanation.

So what happened?

Waxing lyrical

First, let’s give this phenomenon a name. Perhaps "Icarus syndrome" – incidentally the title of a book by Peter Beinart on American hubris — will do. Icarus, you will recall from your Greek mythology class at Princeton, attempted to escape from Crete (yes, he was a Cretan) using wings made of feathers attached to his arms with wax. His father asked "What could possibly go wrong?", but his irony was lost on the lad, who was soon soaring ever upwards, rather like a sultry parakeet.

Then the sun melted the wax and the Cretan fell to earth, as they say in the classics.

There appear to be two proximate causes for the departure of all of football’s superstars from the World Cup.

The first is that football played between nations at a World Cup is a team sport which is quite different from football played between moneyed European clubs.

Clubs pay outlandish sums of money for players who have the rare combination of talent, "marketability" and hairstyles that can give the club a higher media profile. More attention means more TV time, more sponsorships and more endorsements. They are, after all, businesses. Some are even listed.

Because they can buy players on the open market, they are able to construct their teams around these superstars, acquiring the players who will conceal their weaknesses and exaggerate their strengths, whatever the price.

Unsurprisingly, these players then perform at a high level. They find the ball at their feet more often than not in places where they can score goals.

National sides do not have this luxury. Some are able to attract juniors from other countries into their younger squads, but this is not nearly as reliable as buying fully baked superstars who have proved themselves.

By and large, national teams must be constructed with the material at hand and the superstars have to fit into the team, not the other way around.

Which brings us to the second problem: the superstars think they are above the team.

Take Messi.

Argentina’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, said it in March: "This team is more Messi’s than mine."

So large was Messi’s role in managing the Argentine team in Russia that he is credited with bringing on Sergio Agüero as a substitute during the game against Nigeria.

After the victory against Nigeria, Sampaoli said: "When Leo came and hugged me, I felt very proud and happy. He knows I am passionate, passionate every single day."

It is usually the player who is out to impress the coach, but the Icarus syndrome turns the tables.

Ronaldo and Neymar also believe themselves to be bigger than their teams, with disastrous consequences. They can do no wrong, so when they don’t live up to their superstar billing, their teammates and coaches are to blame.

Playing against stars becomes a simple game for the opposition. Mark the superstar out of the match and watch the team disintegrate in fits of confused sulking before your eyes.

It is no surprise that the teams that made it into the hallowed final four all have strong, disciplined defences and strikers who are not bigger than the players around them. England’s Harry Kane and Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic are not prone to on-field performance management of their teammates. France’s mercurial Kylian Mbappé is just making his name. Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku is but one star in a team of 11 stars.

The Icarus syndrome has burnt some big reputations.

There will be an unhappy month or two before these stars return to their clubs, where the teams are tailor-made to make them look good and the memories of World Cup failure will dissolve in the mist.

But they know that true greatness has eluded them because they became bigger than the game.

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