Ken Early: Good or bad, Brazil know best just to play along with Neymar
The superstar displayed both the sublime and the ridiculous in victory over Mexico in Samara
Willian (left) plays the ball in for Neymar (far right) to score during the World Cup round of 16 match against Mexico at the Samara Arena. Photograph: Tatyana Zenkovich/EPA
The emotional flashpoint came midway through the second half, when Neymar collapsed off the field complaining of some foul or other. Mexico’s midfielder Miguel Layún came over to offer assistance, but as he stooped and reached out his hand, the toe of his boot came to rest on Neymar’s shin in what looked like the old tread-on-the-player-you’re-pretending-to-help-up trick.
Except it was an odd sort of stamp, because Neymar seemed not even to notice it at first, and did not react in any way until just after Layún lifted his boot away, at which point the Brazilian suddenly began to convulse in apparent agony.
Watching the replay it was clear that he could not possibly be as badly hurt as his writhing about suggested – he looked as though an alien hatchling was about to burst out through his sternum – and his idea seemed to be to get Layún sent off on video review. Unfortunately he had botched the job by delaying his reaction too long – actual pain would surely have caused a reflex response – and he succeeded only in incensing all of Mexico and, one suspects, most of the watching world.
The game was stopped for four minutes as everybody squawked and jostled on the touchline. It was another mystifying moment from Neymar: doesn’t he see how this turns people against him? The angry contempt he had provoked in the Mexican players was plain, and after that their fouls on Neymar had a certain extra relish.
Maybe Neymar welcomes the hatred of his opponents, but he should also consider his team-mates. Is the task of winning the World Cup not difficult enough already without dragging them into these distracting, farcical episodes, as though they’re constantly being forced to step in to protect the world’s most embarrassing little brother?
Later Neymar appeared at the press conference, where there were some remarkable leading questions. One Brazilian reporter referred to Mexican coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who had claimed that the referee favoured Brazil, especially one player, to whom he refused to refer by name, whose play-acting had caused a four-minute stoppage. “Is this the whining of a loser?” the question concluded.
Brazil coach Tite stepped in to deal with that one. The next reporter asked Neymar about the “polemics” against him: various pundits and former players in Brazil who have criticised his play-acting and excesses. “What do you think about what they’re saying, and to what degree are they using it to undermine you?”
“I think it’s more an attempt to undermine me than anything else,” Neymar’s answer began, unsurprisingly. “I don’t much care for criticism, not even for praise, because this can influence your attitude. I didn’t want any kind of polemics. There are too many people talking, some people get excited, maybe they’re showing off. I just help my team-mates, I help my team, that’s what I’m here for.”
After Neymar left the room, Tite continued to speak as though the sensitive star was still sitting next to him. It was clear that on Planet Neymar, everyone has to pretend that a serious attack had occurred. “I saw what happened. Against the video, you can say nothing,” Tite said, with an air of finality.
Tite is not a delusional Neymar cheerleader, but an intelligent coach who understands that handling his superstar requires the delicacy of a bomb disposal team. You could see this in the subtle rebuke he delivered, which consisted of 90 per cent praise woven together with 10 per cent mild admonition, as though he feels Neymar’s behaviour can only be influenced by suggestion.
Invited to agree with a journalist’s baffling question that Neymar seemed to be performing better “emotionally” than before, Tite first agreed, then said: “When you waste your energy on situations that are not the play, you lose focus.”
He then spoke admiringly of Neymar’s astonishing speed, dribbling ability and imagination, praising him as a magnificent exponent of the best of Brazilian football.
Then came another almost subliminal message: “At the same time of course, maybe taking the focus off of him, let me talk about refereeing. When the situation is a disciplinary aspect, let me deal with that.” This seems to be as close as you can get to telling Neymar to shut up, stop whinging and get on with the game, without setting off an explosion.
Brazil put up with Neymar because of moments like the one he provided six minutes after half-time to score the opening goal, a strike with an element of pantomime that showcased his skill and cunning.
Receiving the ball on the left, he went on a diagonal run that curved away from goal along the 18-yard line. One, two, three, times he faked a shot, each time seeming to attract another Mexican defender to the cluster shepherding him, before rolling a pass back with the sole of his boot to Willian.
The entire attention of the Mexican defence instantly transferred to this new threat, as Willian moved into the left of their box and prepared to shoot or cross. Unseen by the defenders, Neymar turned for goal. The people watching back at home in Mexico knew what was coming before the players on the pitch did: he’s behind you! Willian’s low cross was driven perfectly and Neymar finished a superb move.
It was tough on Mexico, who had started fast, with Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela running at the Brazilian full backs and Vela making Fagner look foolish with some subtle feints. And yet the high-pressure, get-after-them gameplan that perhaps felt so promising at their training base north-east of Moscow looked a little risky in Samara, on the kind of airless 35-degree day when the sweat forms a slippery amniotic coat. They gassed out after 25 minutes or so and from then on Brazil’s victory looked likely.
Not that they went chasing it. Tite spoke afterwards about how he considers “balance” the most important characteristic of a good team, and after taking the lead, Brazil were happy to play on the counter. In the 88th minute Neymar got in behind again, but Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa deflected his shot into the path of Roberto Firmino, who tapped in from close range for his first World Cup goal.
Rather than running to congratulate the goalscorer, Neymar was already backing away towards the corner, inviting his team-mates to join him. As somebody held him aloft, he graciously pointed at Firmino, the way most players do to acknowledge an assist. Firmino jogged over to the huddle to thank Neymar for letting him feed on the crumbs from his table. From Tite down, the Brazilians seem to have quietly concluded that it’s just easier if everybody plays along.
BRAZIL (4-2-3-1): Alisson; Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luis; Paulinho (Fernandinho, 80 mins),Casemiro; Willian (Marquinhos, 90 mins), Coutinho (Firmino, 86 mins), Neymar; G Jesus. Booked: Filipe Luis, Casemiro.
MEXICO (4-3-3-): Ochoa; Alvarez (Jonathan, 55 mins), Ayala, Salcedo, Gallardo; Herrera, Marquez (Layun, 46 mins), Guardado; Vela, Hernandez (Jimenez, 60 mins), Lozano. Booked: Alvarez, Herrera, Salcedo, Guardado.
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy).