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Theatre of Absurd

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A Shawarma joint outside a metro station close to the centre of Moscow is not exactly where you’d expect to meet a couple of Brazilian journalists. But they are there, nonetheless. Inevitably, the conversation soon drifts to Brazil’s performance and how they are looking good under Tite. “He is a good manager,” says one of the journalists. “But Neymar’s head will get in between his tactics.” “He doesn’t want to win the World Cup,” the other one chimes in. “He wants to win the Oscar.” Perhaps no player at this World Cup has been the object of as much ridicule as Neymar. No one has been fouled as much as him in this World Cup either; the 19 fouls on Isco are second as opposed to Neymar’s 23.

But in virtually every match that he has played in Russia, the world has frowned on Neymar’s exaggerated responses to both legitimate fouls and the ones from his imagination. Against Switzerland in Brazil’s opener, a tug by an advancing Granit Xhaka threw Neymar a few metres behind, as if the latter was being pulled by an invisible lasso. After scoring against Costa Rica, Neymar cried like he had scored the winner in the final, and was ridiculed for it.

Against Serbia, he was tackled while advancing down the left wing, and his reaction was akin to someone being hit by a speeding car, executing four full rolls on the grass. Then, in Brazil’s Round of 16 game against Mexico, he enacted the agony of someone whose leg had just been sawed off, in response to Miguel Layun making contact with it. And there are few in the football world who haven’t taken it upon themselves to examine Neymar’s acting chops. Even before the referee had ended the Serbia game, memes started pouring in.

In one, Neymar rolls off the field, onto a road, past the countryside and over a waterfall. KFC came up with an ad where a footballer, after being fouled, rolls off the pitch in agony and all the way to their nearest outlet. Manchester United legend Eric Cantona even posted a video with a few words of advice for Neymar. “Be careful with the continuity mistakes. If you are hit on your right shoulder, you cannot be crying in pain holding your left cheek.” But lost in the middle of all the discussions about Neymar’s histrionics is how he has been getting better with each match.

Against Switzerland, he was completely neutralised. But he had an injury-time goal to show for his efforts against Costa Rica. Serbia was perhaps his best performance of the group stage as he displayed a couple of brilliant touches and threatened throughout the match, despite not being able to find a goal. Then against Mexico, Brazil owed both their goals to him. He set the tone early on, cutting in from the left wing, leaving two defenders for dead, before having his shot blocked by Mexico keeper Guillermo Ochoa.

In the second half, Neymar once again showed up on the left with the ball and cut inside, first dragging one, then two, then three defenders along with him. Just as he was sure that he had created enough space for a rushing Willian, he backheeled the ball into the Chelsea man’s path. And when Willian’s low cross finally came in, Neymar was on hand to poke the ball in. For Brazil’s second, the 26-year-old did all the hard work on the left flank; Roberto Firmino had an empty net to tap into. Against Belgium, the world will once again be on the lookout for Neymar’s Mr Hyde to show up. The Brazilians won’t care, not as long as Dr Jekyll does too.

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