“They are sorted out in the dressing room, everything has a solution, everything is quiet. The important thing is we all fight for the same goal.”
Edinson Cavani’s latest attempt to end the season’s most entertaining saga so far — namely his squabble with Neymar over who should take Paris Saint-Germain’s set pieces — was undermined by a superbly unfortunate choice of words.
Arguing over penalty duties has a rich and undignified recent history. Neymar and Cavani, with some assistance from Dani Alves, may have simply pushed the genre on to new levels of pettiness and into an unprecedented public gaze.
First, a recap of the latest dead-ball dispute. It began with Kylian Mbappe’s home debut for PSG on Sept. 17, which came with a crash course for the placid 18-year-old on just how elite egotism is supposed to work.
At the Parc des Princes and the game goalless in the second half, Neymar was felled just outside the Lyon box. Cavani marched over confidently to declare his intentions. Then Alves muscled in, apparently with an interest in sizing the chance up for himself, then briefly wrestled with Cavani for the ball before handing it to his Brazilian teammate instead. Cavani wore the facial expression of a man who suspected this was a losing battle already.
A few minutes later, PSG won a penalty, for which Cavani again volunteered himself. This time he got as far as placing the ball before any objections were raised — Neymar picked an inopportune moment to doubt his strike partner’s prospects from the spot — but he was grudgingly allowed to proceed. Then his penalty was saved.
This Sunday night pantomime was instantaneously pounced upon by social media, with a roughly 75 percent to 25 percent split between those who thought it was thoroughly entertaining and those who couldn’t quite believe top-level teammates could be so visibly childish when there was a game to be won.
The fallout became almost surreal in its rumour-mongering: There was talk — flatly denied by the club — that Cavani had been offered, and duly rejected, a €1m bonus to surrender penalty-taking duties to the world’s most expensive player of all time.
This may all seem like an almighty, never-ending fuss over such a simple thing, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Penalty-kick duty, while generally a formality during any 90 minutes, is as much of a status symbol as the captain’s armband. It’s not just the scoring, it’s the stepping up to do so and the readiness to be the subjected to the lingering close-up before the whistle.
Penalties pad out goal tallies, often without much of a caveat when the totting-up is done at the end of the season for various Golden Boots. Cavani knows that better than anyone: 17 percent of his goals last season came from the relative comfort of the penalty spot, but the record books rarely quibble with the detail.
In turn, though, goal tallies have become a vital part of any player’s Ballon d’Or candidacy. Neymar’s thoroughly modern move to PSG was already based on unashamed individual footballing ambition after four years of yo-yo-ing around the top seven of the annual vote to establish the planet’s most premium talent. With that ambition exposed, every penalty counts. And every unsuccessful wrestle for the ball counts even more.
Being prepared to go to war in public with a teammate over a set-piece separates the professional egotist from the mere amateurs. In that context, Paolo Di Canio perhaps dragged the phenomenon kicking and screaming into the mainstream in 2000.
Harry Redknapp’s West Ham — hardly a bastion of tranquility at the best of times — found themselves 4-2 down at home to relegation-threatened Bradford. By this combustible point, Di Canio had already seen no fewer than three very presentable penalty appeals go unheard, the third of which compelled him to appeal to the bench to be substituted before he completely lost control.
Persuaded to continue, Di Canio then looked on as West Ham finally won a penalty, for which designated taker Frank Lampard immediately grabbed the ball, with time very much of the essence. Cue what should be regarded as the industry standard of penalty squabbling.
The most important component of any self-respecting exchange of views between two willing penalty-takers is the initial wrestle for possession. This harks back to the school ground, or perhaps even fighting over toys in kindergarten, and can be considered a close cousin of the mightily unnecessary scramble for the ball when a team that has just scored wants to get the ball back to the centre-circle as quickly as possible to continue a comeback.
When wrestling doesn’t get the desired result, there’s a pleading look to the bench; again, an overwhelmingly childish tactic once directed toward a parent to force them to choose sides. In 2000, Lampard was undermined by the fact that West Ham’s manager and his assistant were family members.
Fast forward 17 years and PSG coach Unai Emery came across rather meekly when confronted with the theatrics within his ranks.
“There are two players able to take penalty kicks: Cavani and Neymar,” he said. “There will be, from now, the first shooter and the second one. I will let them know who is going to be the first one and who will be the second one. But there is also a responsibility level.”
If a coach can’t — or won’t — risk his job by getting involved, the players themselves can occasionally be trusted to work it through themselves. Over at Bayern Munich, another club at which internal fuss is a perennial hazard, Franck Ribery and Toni Kroos once decided who would take a free kick by engaging in a quick game of rock, paper, scissors.
In more convivial atmospheres, rather more convoluted ways are found to share the spot-kick spotlight. In 2005, Arsenal’s Robert Pires and Thierry Henry evoked the spirit of Johan Cruyff and Jesper Olsen 20 years earlier by attempting a high-risk one-two from 12 yards away.
Pires’ error threw the whole thing into farce, however, not to mention incurring the wrath of Manchester City’s Danny Mills, who had found the whole thing slightly unsporting.
Set-pieces and Ballons d’Or aside, Neymar and Cavani’s relationship needn’t be too much of a concern to Emery and PSG. Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham shared barely a word with each other during Manchester United’s glory years around the turn of the millennium, a cold war that even Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t moved to try and solve.
What Cole and Sheringham — or Di Canio and Lampard — didn’t have to deal with, however, is the gleeful social media scrutiny of their complicated chemistry. Neymar apparently unfollowing Cavani on Instagram in the aftermath of their set-to provided another exquisitely petty footnote to this story.
The art of “penaltiquette” remains as complex as ever, but history suggests that the bigger ego will almost certainly prevail.
Adam Hurrey analyses the language of football. You can follow him on Twitter: @FootballCliches.