SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers on how Mexico’s thrilling start to the World Cup in Russia ultimately led to another disappointment. USA TODAY Sports
MOSCOW â€”Â Neymar is the most expensive player in soccer history, one of the finest players in the world, a national hero, a cultural icon, a potential World Cup champion and an absolute embarrassment.
You can end every single statement about the Brazilian superstar with a giant â€śBUT.â€ť
Thatâ€™s right, capital letters, underlined, even throw in a couple of exclamation points if you like.
He is supremely gifted at the game of soccer and, if he hits top form over the next couple of weeks, heâ€™s good enough to lead Brazil to its sixth World Cup title. BUT …Â
He is a magician with the ball at his feet and his runs at a defense are worthy of a highlight reel of their own. BUT …
At 26, he will be around for longer than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, much like heâ€™s lasted longer than them in this tournament, and heâ€™s still getting better. BUT …
The â€śbutâ€ť is the thing that makes Neymar, for all his brilliance, a giant pain in the butt. Thatâ€™s real pain, by the way, not the kind of imagined agony that he oh-so-bravely battles through several times each game.
You know the ones, where he gives a bloodcurdling shriek that points to mortal peril. Or writhes on the ground, squirming as if his organs are shutting down and his capacity for normal function has left him. Only to find himself, moments later, back on his feet and sprinting at full tilt. A newcomer to the sport must marvel that he has remarkable powers of recovery.
He doesnâ€™t, of course. Heâ€™s just a faker, a diver, a simulator, a play-actor, or any of the other words soccer uses to gloss over the fact that someone is trying to blatantly and shamelessly cheat by conning the referee into punishing an opponent.
Neymar has been at it for years but the grandiose stage of the World Cup has seen his theatrics go into overdrive. Against Serbia in the group stage, he received contact while sprinting down the wing, tumbled to the turf and performed a remarkable feat of gymnastics by completing four-and-a-half full rolls on the ground, with a difficulty rating of 9.2 and an execution score of â€śare you serious, dude?â€ť
MORE WORLD CUP:
Against Costa Rica, he tried â€“Â and nearly succeeded â€“Â to win a penalty kick by hurling himself backwards after the merest of touches from a defender, convincing the ref to point to the spot before video replay correctly overturned it.
Yet, his masterpiece was reserved for the 2-0 Brazil victory over Mexico in the round of 16 on Monday night in Samara.
Neymar had put his team ahead early in the second half, sliding home and from close range after a fine cross from Willian. At the end, he would be the provider, helping to set up Roberto Firmino for the goal that sealed a quarterfinal spot.
Sandwiched in between, was a comical moment. With 20 minutes left, Mexicoâ€™s Miguel Layun, sick of Neymarâ€™s constant chicanery, moved towards the forward as he lay prone once more, and put his foot on top of the Brazilian, just above the ankle.
It was the kind of touch that carried the force of a cucumber being placed on someoneâ€™s shin. Bad breath has caused more damage. Yet there was Neymar, taking a split second to realize his opportunity, unleashÂ that now-famous scream, then followÂ it up with a writhing, contorting, pounding-the-turf response worthy of Hollywood.
There are a couple of ironies here. One is that while Layunâ€™s action was not capable of generating physical harm, it was nonetheless cynical and deliberate.
Fox Sports commentator Stuart Holden described it as â€śserious misconduct.â€ť If not for the fact that Neymarâ€™s reputation now precedes him, it could have easily drawnÂ a yellow or even a red card.
Little chance of that though, not for the boy who cries as if the wolf has already torn him to shreds.
A few minutes earlier, as he was pulled to his feet by Layun, Neymar reached his foot behind him and tried to stamp on the Mexican. Hard. He missed.
He doesnâ€™t miss often in front of goal, and his pathetic antics wonâ€™t be missed if he decided to give them a couple of games off. Soccer has anointed him one of its modern greats, but its time he started acting like it, instead of just acting.