Brazil drinks to Neymar... but for scoring or diving?
National hero and national embarrassment rolled into one. Star player is at a crossroads
Falling over in the box... a bar in Rio de Janeiro says it will serve a free round of beer during Brazil’s match against Serbia every time Neymar executes what is increasingly his on-field signature – the elaborate tumble at the merest hint of contact. Photograph: Lee Smith/Var Reuters
We need to talk about Neymar. Again.
The Brazilian is one of the world’s most gifted footballers but is increasingly seen by fans everywhere as a cheat. He is arguably Brazil’s highest-wattage celebrity but the butt of increasingly cruel jokes avidly shared among his compatriots, many of whom call him Neymarketing and dismiss him as a mercenary and mau caráter – a bad ’un.
Considering that on his day he remains by far Brazil’s best player his fall from grace back home since the World Cup kicked off has been spectacular. He was ridiculed for the new haircut he unveiled for the opening game against Switzerland and criticised after the match for hogging the ball to little effect.
Against Costa Rica the national embarrassment at his outburst of tears on the final whistle was palpable, bringing painfully to mind memories of the side’s emotional collapse four years ago against Germany in the infamous 7-1 defeat.
Since then Neymar’s conduct, or lack of it, during the match has been minutely analysed. Whether it is his constantly swearing at the referee, provoking less-capable opponents or simulating fouls it is as if some sort of dam has burst.
There was criticism of him before in Brazil but it was always somewhat muted and typically lost in the celebrity worship that has surrounded the player since he emerged as 17-year old sensation with Santos.
Now there is even a bar in Rio which for Wednesday’s group decider against Serbia will be serving a free round of beer every time Neymar executes what is increasingly his on-field signature – the elaborate tumble at the merest hint of contact. (Rumours of fleets of beer trucks heading to Rio remain unconfirmed).
Bizarrely Neymar could now be both Brazil’s best chance of winning a sixth world title and simultaneously the biggest threat to its ambitions. His statistics for Brazil make him unarguably their most important player. That only makes Brazilian fans nervous about his on-field tantrums.
He has already picked up one stupid yellow card and with his burgeoning reputation as foul-mouthed diver it would be no surprise if a referee gave him another, which would leave him sitting out a match at the business end of the tournament (assuming Brazil makes it that far).
There were those that warned something like this could happen. Back in 2010, after watching Neymar throw a strop mid-match at his own manager, the opposition team’s coach René Simões warned “I have always worked with youngsters and I have never seen anything like it ... We are creating a monster in Brazilian football.”
Sumptuous ability, quickly allied to the global celebrity-marketing machine, ensured Neymar was able to ignore such criticism and his behaviour appears little changed since. He has accumulated titles, awards and a massive fortune and his poor sportsmanship and mercenary instincts that left his former fans at Santos and Barcelona with a bitter after-taste have done little to diminish his celebrity power.
But that could all be about to change.
Neymar is 26 years old. Theoretically this is his best chance of stamping his mark on a World Cup. The arc of his career seems to be building towards it, the indulgence his behaviour has been afforded at home in some way premised on it. Should he deliver the title that is for Brazil a compensatory success that momentarily dulls the pain of multiple failures across the rest of its society he will swagger into the pantheon.
But should he fail? Should he be responsible for failure? Then the reaction could be interesting, given the turn against him that has been crystallizing in the last few weeks.
Maybe celebrity is now so detached from reality there will be no reaction, just more followers on Instagram. But there are hints it could be something nastier. That would be a pity. Football is still only a game and given the mess the country is in winning or losing the World Cup is really irrelevant in the larger Brazilian scheme of things.
Rather than set up Neymar to be the villain of any eventual failure a more valuable exercise would be to question what role our simultaneously voyeuristic and narcissistic, success-obsessed celebrity culture and the companies and media conglomerates that relentlessly promote it had in transforming one of the great individual exponents of the world’s beautiful game into the player many fans would now love to see leave Russia early.