The postmatch words of Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, criticising Neymar for his simulation and exaggeration, were clearly in part motivated by the bitterness of the 2-0 defeat to Brazil.
One moment of Oscar-worthy hysterics aside, the Brazilian star was relatively restrained in his antics against Mexico. Even so, while his flashes of immense talent tipped the balance Brazil’s way, so much of the worldwide reaction — in both conventional and social media — focused on the behaviour of the man in the famous yellow No. 10 shirt.
This is unfortunate. Brazil vs. Mexico was a fine spectacle, with both teams seeking to impose their game on the other, just as things should be in a knockout match at the World Cup. But given the extreme reactions that Neymar provokes it is also inevitable, and it is an issue that is unlikely to go away, either during this tournament or in Neymar’s career. He can be modified — it is worth speculating that coach Tite is striving to do this behind the scenes — but he is unlikely to be fundamentally changed. Neymar is what he is, and football has an uncanny capacity to bring personality traits to the surface.
First, there is Neymar the person. He often comes across as a pleasant and engaging young man. But there is also something of the permanent adolescent about him, a boy prince with an occasional tendency to appear as a brat. He is, as his shirt makes clear, Neymar Junior, a 26-year-old man who still defines himself as a son.
Is he the spoiled centre of a business empire his father has created around him? Certainly there are Brazilian journalists — as I can attest from doing years of TV programmes with them — who have little time for him. As one said to me recently: “Nothing is allowed to come in the way of his happiness.”
Those of this school of thought were appalled by his tears at the end of the Costa Rica match, with which Brazil’s entire World Cup campaign, they argue, is reduced to a drama that is exclusively about Neymar.
On the other hand, he communicates very well and naturally with millions of younger people. It might well be fair to see him as a powerful symbol of an overprotected, over-parented generation.
He is, of course, a quite magnificent footballer too. So naturally gifted is Neymar that, at his best, everyone else on the field appears to be playing in slow motion. Superbly balanced, he is capable of endless improvisation at pace, and he strikes the ball off either foot with power, venom and precision.
But as a footballer, too, he is a product of his environment. Over recent decades, the Brazilian game has adopted a criteria for fouls that is out of step with the rest of the world. Club sides from Brazil often have a problem when playing in international competitions. They are used to minimal physical contact being deemed a foul. One former Brazilian referee, Leonardo Gaciba, once told me that he used a different criteria for domestic games than what he applied in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. In Brazil, he would blow for everything.
Neymar has taken this to extremes. It is worth noting that he is not an old-fashioned street footballer. Growing up in such informal circumstances is an education for slightly built, skilful players. A basic survival skill is the knowledge of when to go for the dribble and when to move the ball on quickly. This is not Neymar’s story. He is at the forefront of a modern, more hot-housed generation, who have come through futsal.
As Neymar grew up, there was always a referee present, and the use of the officials to gain free kicks became his self-defence strategy. This makes him very hard to referee.
Like all highly talented players in the history of the game, he is much more sinned against than sinning. Opponents are always out to stop him applying his skills to the game. The problem is that his reaction often takes him outside the codes of football, in that he can appear to believe that the game is a noncontact sport and that any contact on him is automatically a foul. Seen in this light, not all of his simulation is actually simulation. He genuinely believes that he has been fouled.
Neymar would also seem to have an extremely low pain threshold. It is fair to assume that he simply could not have stayed in the game at the highest level before the 1994 World Cup, when FIFA launched a crackdown on the tackle from behind. He would surely not have been able to withstand the constant punishment that was dished out, for example, to Diego Maradona.
Football clearly gains from the extra protection afforded to contemporary stars. It also gains from the presence of a player as extraordinarily talented as Neymar, but it would gain even more without his excesses. However, those excesses are part of who he is, and while they can be limited, it is hard to imagine their eradication.