The knee that broke Neymar’s back — Is academia that harsh?
The chances of success in academia are definitely better than in elite sports. And there are many ways of having a satisfying and fulfilling career.
Cite as: Kamoun, S. (2022). The knee that broke Neymar’s back — Is academia that harsh? Zenodo https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6641767
Most of you have never heard of Juan Camilo Zúñiga Mosquera. His Wikipedia page describes the footballer (soccer player) as a wing back who has played in the Italian Serie A and English Premier League as well as the Colombian national team. There is even a section on his style of play. “A quick, energetic, versatile, and hard-working player,” it states. Unfortunately for him, Zúñiga will forever be known as the player who literally kicked the Brazilian superstar Neymar out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. And you must have heard of Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior simply known as Neymar.
Neymar is a beautiful player to watch. He honed his skills in futsal and it shows. Aged 22, he was hitting his peak in 2014 just as the World Cup was about to take place in his native Brazil — a country known as ‘o País do Futebol’ where football is compared to religion. In the season leading to the Cup, Neymar was starting to adapt to Spain after a high profile transfer to FC Barcelona. He showed both his footballing genius and his human side in a friendly 2014 World Cup warm up game against South Africa. After scoring a hat-trick, he intervened with security when a South African boy ran onto the pitch and he led the kid to join the team’s celebrations. He seemed ready to showcase his best during this once in a lifetime opportunity to play the World Cup in his home country.
This softer gentle side of Neymar contrasts with his famous theatrics, which irritate opponents and fans alike and have become a subject of memes and jokes. I highly recommend the Netflix docuseries “The Perfect Chaos” to appreciate the complexity of Neymar’s character.
The World Cup started well for Neymar. He scored a few goals in the early rounds and seemed ready to carry Brazil all the way to the final. But then, in the quater final game against Colombia, Zúñiga awkwardly ran into him from behind and the defender’s knee hit Neymar’s back hard enough to send him crying in pain. And this time the tears were real, there was no acting.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the World Cup, Neymar was removed from the pitch on a stretcher and sent to the hospital for X-rays. You don’t have to be a radiologist to see how bad the injury was (warning, not the X-ray image isn’t for the faint hearted). The official diagnostic was fractured lumbar vertebrae. Needless to say, Neymar was out of the Cup — the whole country of Brazil and legions of football fans around the world were in shock. The Brazilian team never recovered and went on to a humiliating 7–1 defeat to Germany in the semi-finals.
The injury, Neymar said in interviews, was “the worst moment of my life because of the week I went through. I just cried at home, I would see my mom, my dad, crying — everyone sad, my friends, family … and this, to me, has been the worst moment.”
As Neymar recalled in the Netflix series and in other interviews, the doctor told him,
“I have two pieces of news. One good and one bad. And I was like, The bad one first. The bad one: You can’t play the World Cup. It’s over for you. And I’m like, What’s the good one? The good one, of course, was a huge blessing. The good one is that afterward you will be able to walk, because two centimeters to the side … football is over for you. If it was a little on the left, then you would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.”
Why am I telling you all this? There is talk out there that there are very few jobs in academia and that success is almost impossible to reach. I know this will be controversial, but I disagree. The odds of having a satisfactory and fulfilling academic career are much higher than in any professional sport, entertainment or art.
Think again about how cruel elite sport can be and how the odds and yardsticks of success compare to academia. And a sport career is short, rarely extending beyond the athlete’s 30s.
There is only one FIFA World Cup and it takes place only once every 4 years. Same for the Olympic games. In individual sports, the probability of becoming elite is ridiculously low. How hard is it to be an olympic swimmer in the US? It doesn’t matter whether you’ve won all the races in your home state when you end up in the bottom tier at the National Championship. What about athletics? Take the high school prodigy Erriyon Knighton who, at the tender age of 17, represented the U.S. in men’s track at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics . He finished fourth — just outside the medals — in the 200m sprint race clocking 19.93 seconds, the fastest time in history for his age. By any standards, this was an exceptional and historical performance, but Knighton wept in the Tokyo Olympic stadium tunnel and “ was obviously upset.” His coach Mike Holloway recalled telling him that night:
“I was just like, ‘Look, man, remember how you feel. And remember, you don’t want to ever feel this way again. So every training session we do next year, remember how you feel right now and that you never want to feel this way again.’”
Academia is harsh? Yes, sure academia is tough and challenging and can be harsh in many ways. But in terms of measures of success and chances of “making it”, it’s nowhere like the insane odds of elite sports. And these days, there seems to be jobs aplenty, and there are many paths to securing a job and having a successful and fulfilling career. The trend is towards accepting that diversity — at all levels — is necessary for a healthy and productive academic environment. It wasn’t always this way.
And there are many ways of being successful in academia. An academic career means you will spend your time solving puzzles and contributing to the pool of knowledge that has driven humanity forward. It gives you the satisfaction of training and mentoring young scientists and students, and watch them grow and develop. What else can be more satisfying and fulfilling?
Just be sure to be a fair and honest mentor and that you produce work that stands the test of time. The ones I don’t have any patience with are the clowns and imposters who feed the blogs of Elisabeth Bik and Leonid Schneider. And that’s one side of Neymar’s game we don’t want to emulate.
I apologize to my Brazilian and Colombian friends for bringing up the memory of this painful episode. It’s worth mentioning that Zúñiga apologized and Neymar accepted the apology. But as often with Neymar, it did get more chaotic…