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FIFA World Cup 2018: Neymar delights with trickery against Mexico, but his histrionics dilute narrative about his talent

FIFA World Cup 2018: Neymar delights with trickery against Mexico, but his histrionics dilute narrative about his talent

In the 51th minute Neymar drifted and drifted inside, the ball tied to his right foot. He drew Miguel Layun, who had come on for the evergreen Rafael Marquez at the interval; he drew two more Mexicans and seemingly shaped up to shoot, but then he did something unexpected: he played for the team — something he had done too little of in the group stages, releasing Willian with a Socrates-que back heel. He had dragged half of the Mexican defence away from their positions with a run parallel to their back line and then fooled them with a functional, yet delightful, soft-touch back heel, liberating the Chelsea player in the left channel of the box. Brazil’s No 10 then got on the end of Willian’s low cross and tapped in at the far post, showcasing his anticipation and game intelligence.

This was a vintage Neymar, the one Brazil had been waiting for in Group F. He had unlocked Mexico with functional trickery and the elite skills that will allow him to topple the exited celestial duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the near future. The goal was a testimony to his own progression in Russia, but also highlighted the attacking virtues that Brazil had demonstrated on an afternoon of stifling heat in Samara on the banks of the Volga. The darts, the feints, the interplays and subtle collective mobility — so often unnoticed — exposed Mexico’s rearguard.

Even if Brazil were in control, the solution was always going to come from a moment of individual brilliance. Philippe Coutinho played a more subdued game and so Neymar combined with the ebullient Willian in the second half for Brazil’s first goal of the afternoon. Everything had gone to plan: Mexico simply kept running into Brazil, finding no space to pass through. On the counter, Juan Carlos Osorio’s team demonstrated lamentable decision-making, somehow always ignoring the free man.In the 25th minute Neymar first bamboozled his direct opponent, Mexican right-back Edson Alvarez. Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who excelled for Mexico, prevented Neymar from opening the scoring, but the tease and the danger signified a shift in the balance of power: Brazil, guilty of a slow and hesitant start, complicated by a frenzied, speed-of-light Mexican onslaught, now imposed their game, spearheaded by Neymar, who had been isolated in the opening exchanges. In and around the Mexican box, Brazil found pockets of space. The Mexicans quivered at so much Brazilian intrusion.


Neymar, however, was not satisfied. His petty diva propensity demanded he’d be at the centre of attention, all the time. He didn’t simply react when Layun picked the ball from between his feet, but play-acted, the calibre of performance not undeserving of the Bolshoi Theatre. What was he thinking? His behaviour was, at the very best, baffling. He had rolled and rolled — and rolled — after a challenge from Serbia's Adem Ljajic in the first round. These renewed histrionics reeked of insatiable egocentrism. Outside of the World Cup and the risible non-penalty against Costa Rica, Neymar’s petulance has other historical precedents during Tite’s Brazil reign. The Brazil star also got the emotional tone of the game wrong in a World Cup qualifier against Ecuador as well as in a friendly against Japan last November in Lille. At times, it seems that Tite has indulged his talisman a bit too much.

The Brazil coach offered a full-blown defence of Neymar after the game. “He likes to play, he likes to dribble,” said Tite. “Is it a problem to dribble in the last third to provoke the players individually? It's not a sin, that's what the coach says you should do. Brazilian football has this characteristics.”


Neymar is entitled to probe, prod and provoke, but his theatrics ultimately undermine his global perception. Osorio, the Mexico coach, said, without referencing Neymar explicitly: “I think it’s a shame for football. We wasted a lot of time because of one player. We stopped too often. I think this is a very negative example for the world of football and all the children who are following this game. This is a strong sport, a man’s sport and I think there shouldn’t be so much acting.”

Osorio exaggerated, but the Neymar-centric melodrama also rankles the team. Arguably, Neymar had his most performant 90 minutes of this World Cup against El Tri, because of the team, and not, in spite of it, as Ronaldo and Messi have so often experienced. Tite’s Brazil have the potential to become a fine outfit. To do so, Neymar will have to lift his game, the dynamic between talisman and team symbiotic, starting on Friday against Belgium. For now, Brazil’s progress has been serene, if not spectacular. Neymar has also been steady, blossoming slowly, but to attain greatness for Brazil he must shed his petulance and refocus on the game.

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