But this World Cup is a moment to concede the obvious: The duopoly of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi that has ruled the global game for the last decade is in its late era. At this tournament, both Messi and Ronaldo disappeared in their country’s pivotal game. They looked exhausted and bereft of the creativity and audacity that has defined their careers. We can forgive this. The World Cup is a spectacle that tests the body, coming at the end of a long season and taking place in summer conditions inhospitable to an endurance sport like soccer.
Yet, Ronaldo and Messi are gone and here’s Neymar carrying the team now favored to win the World Cup—a team that, by all appearances, respectfully defers to his genius and takes genuine pleasure in his success. Against Mexico, one of his deflected shots was knocked into the net by his teammate Roberto Firmino. Breaking with the conventions of goal celebrations, Brazil rushed to embrace and pile on top of Neymar, instead of the guy who scored. The world may consider Neymar to be spoiled, but his compatriots take pleasure in indulging him.
When Neymar receives the ball, he often pauses before beginning his move. He wants to freeze the defender in place. For all those who watch him, this moment represents a very specific kind of kinetic question mark. Because when Neymar touches the ball, everything is possible. He might engage in an ill-advised assault on three defenders—and though he’ll fail frequently, occasionally he’ll also prevail. He might deploy one of the many showboating tricks he invented, like the rainbow ball he flicked over the head of a Costa Rican defender. As the journalist Tim Vickery, a terrific explicator of the South American game, has written: “Neymar is not only gifted with spectacular ball skills, he is also extraordinarily mentally sharp. Like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, there are times when he appears to be seeing things in slow motion. While his marker is overwhelmed by the speed of his movement, he seems to have plenty of time to decide what he wants to do.”
Before Neymar’s first World Cup, in 2014, Nike produced an ad that declared, “Dare to be Brazilian.” The spot nodded to the recent history of the Brazilian game. Expectations for success weigh especially heavily on Brazil, since its success in the tournament has helped define the nation’s identity. After having hoisted the World Cup five times, it can’t abide the fact that it hasn’t won since 2002. To recover its past glories, the team repeatedly turned to pragmatic coaches who loaded the squad with players who would dutifully work within a rigid system. This pragmatism squeezed the spiritual core from the Brazilian game, making the team difficult to distinguish from its competitors.
Neymar, as the ad implied, represents the dream of returning to the stylish, improvisational style of Pelé, Garrincha, and Ronaldo, a reversion to what is called futebol-arte. This is quite a bit of pressure to place on a 26-year-old—the pressure not just to succeed, but also the expectation that his performance will place him in a canon of artistic greatness. My guess is that this pressure helps explain why Neymar sometimes seems as if he is forcing the issue. His cleverness can feel more artifice than organic.