The Annoying Genius Who Makes the World Cup Worth Watching

In defense of Brazil’s Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior—and all his antics

The Brazil striker Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior is often criticized for his theatrics. (David Gray / Reuters)

There’s one transcendent player left at this World Cup, a player whom the eye irresistibly trails as he moves across the pitch—and, if you’ve ever seen him, you probably hate him.

Or at least, you’re being trained to hate him. Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, of Brazil, is the sort of human being that English and American soccer pundits, schooled in the cult of manly stoicism and prone to self-righteous sermons about fair play, were born to disdain. And after his overwrought performance in the game that vanquished Mexico on Monday, Neymar hatred has traveled quite a bit farther than that. The Brazilian newspaper Globo ran the accurate headline, “Neymar has charmed Brazil, but annoyed the whole world.”

Well, the whole world is wrong.

But here’s what allegedly ticks them off: Neymar’s critics despise his theatrical writhing on the ground after a breeze brushes his neck; they mock his protean hair, which he has restyled four times in the last two weeks. (To be fair, he began the tournament looking, as some observers noted, like he had artfully arrayed a packet of raw ramen on his scalp.) When Neymar touches the ball, he will often ignore the fact that the field is filled with teammates of the highest caliber—and that expedience would dictate that he pass to them. The words you most often hear associated with Neymar are antics and adolescent.

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.

To enjoy Neymar requires forgiving the bouts of exaggerated suffering. First, we need to consider his vulnerable physique. He’s improbably slight. When a defender’s knee obstructs the path of his dribbling, he is knocked into the air, then floats down to the turf like a leaf. Upon contact with the ground, he’ll engage in his signature roll. For someone with so little mass, it’s incredible that he can summon the momentum to turn over so many times. Yes, this is the work of an amateur thespian, the football equivalent of a stagy death scene that never ends.

This bit of melodrama can be explained and justified. To stop a player with the speed and unpredictability of Neymar, his opponents must resort to fouling him. Anyone familiar with the history of Brazilian soccer knows that such aggression can be ruinous. It has cost Brazil the World Cup on several occasions. In 1966, the Bulgarians pummeled Pelé, forcing him to miss games—and then the Portuguese did the same, when he returned to the lineup. The same tactics were used against Neymar in the last World Cup, when a Colombian defender’s knee thrust into Neymar, breaking a vertebrae in his back. Doctors told Neymar that he had just escaped an injury that would have paralyzed him, and it kept him in a brace for the duration of that World Cup. There’s little doubt that the injury ruined Brazil’s hopes of winning the 2014 edition of the tournament, which ended in the country’s catastrophic 7–1 defeat to Germany. Fouling an elusive player like Neymar is perhaps an understandable tactic—but it’s also understandable that Neymar would use everything in his arsenal to call attention to this aggression. His exaggerated reactions are pleas for the protective interventions of referees.

Neymar’s trickery deserves absolution, because it is the very source of his greatness. A mind that’s always thinking of how to deceive a defender is also always thinking about how to deceive a referee. Cunning is his stock and trade. In this way, the “adolescent” description fits. He is like the teen who finds an artful and improbable excuse; he is Ferris Bueller racing home. But unlike his opponents, who wish to inflict pain, his sins are essentially victimless—especially since this tournament has introduced video assistant referees, with his antics constantly being reviewed by replay. (Video assistant referees would have caught Ferris Bueller before the end of second period.)

This has been an immensely satisfying World Cup, with more than its share of upsets and last-minute finishes. And perhaps a great World Cup needs a villain for everyone to rally against. Still, rather than joining a moral panic against Neymar, I recommend appreciating his gamesmanship, his deceitfulness, even his selfishness—since Neymar aims to achieve something more than a result; he wants to prove himself the worthy heir to a great tradition.