Neymar: The boy who cried wolf
There once was a shepherd boy who was bored as he sat on the hillside watching the village sheep. To amuse himself he took a great breath and sang out, "Wolf! Wolf! The Wolf is chasing the sheep!"
.... goes the tale.
We all know what happens next.
As we take a break in the middle of the World Cup to give the players some rest before the all-important last 4 games, it is time we look back at some of the key figures who have left Russia with empty hands.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are probably the first two names that come to your mind, and rightly so. A lot has been said (and written) about these giants, and I will speak about it no further.
But the third name that immediately pops into everyone's mind is certainly Neymar.
The subject of the 222 million euro transfer to PSG, Neymar has been in the limelight for almost the entire last season. Even an absence because of injury was not enough to keep him away from the news, as the World Cup neared.
Neymar was supposed to be the star of the tournament, or at the very least, the Brazilian team. But what we are instead left with is the image of him rolling on the ground clutching his ankles - and not once, but so many times that we have lost count.
His two goals have taken a backseat to his antics on the field, permanently scarring his legacy in an age where legacies are hard to come by. Neymar could have gone down as simply the greatest Brazilian since Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, but he has turned into sort of a meme.
What is worse is that he has done it to himself. Is he a genius with the ball at his feet? Yes. Is he capable of turning a match on its head on his day? Most definitely. That is where the argument should end. Instead, we have a third question to which the answer is a painful yes - Does he sacrifice his skill for embellishment?
It is funny how the word in football means the exact opposite of its meaning in the world outside football. In football, it means an exaggeration of a simple/non-existent foul to draw a favourable decision, while embellishment in the conventional sense means to make something more attractive.
There is nothing attractive when Neymar does it on the field. He did it twice (a minimum of twice, to be exact) against Belgium, with his team trailing by 2 goals. Some will interpret it as a great move on his part - a character who will do whatever it takes to get his team through, but there is no denying the fact that it is pathetic.
Pathetic might sound too harsh a word, but I stand by it. And it makes the action when done by someone who is talented enough to not resort to it.
Neymar is not the only footballer who does it. Plenty did before him. Plenty do. Plenty will.
Robben dived to take Mexico out of the last World Cup. Ronaldo received a ban at the start of this season for the same reason. Sergio Busquets has a history of it. David Luiz's image of him lying on the ground with an eye open is immortalized in modern football.
Sergio Ramos did it when his side was leading by 3-1 against Juventus in the Champions League final. Mbappe did it in his most recent game against Uruguay.
These are just the ones I can list from the top of my head. I am sure you can remember much, much more if you dig deep.
As football gets more and more commercialized and the prize and price of glory gets exponentially high, there is no avoiding these kinds of actions. Successful people did not reach there by playing by the book, and nor can we expect them to.
But Neymar's case, in particular, is peculiar, because of the recurrence. Even more so because of his prioritization of it over his natural skill.
Against Costa Rica, Neymar chose to take to the ground instead of taking a shot from inside the box - a shot a player of his quality could have scored from. He did it against Mexico on the sidelines, in front of everyone's eyes.
That is what is most infuriating. There is no denying that Neymar is special. There is no denying that he is already a great for Brazil. But he can be so much more than that.
A case in point is Hazard. Against Brazil, the last 15 minutes was the best I have seen of Hazard. He didn't score or assist, and nor did he dribble past 5 defenders to force a save from the keeper.
All he did was hold the ball in the Brazilian half from their defenders - Fagner Lemos, to be specific. All he did was try to draw a foul and let his team breathe - which he absolutely did. But the manner in which he went about it deserves to be commended.
He was fouled; he was pushed and pulled but he did not go down until he was completely knocked to the ground. He could have gone down from the first pull, and the referee would have still given the foul, but he CHOSE not to.
Am I saying Hazard is a saint? His penalty against Arsenal this season is still suspect, and even as a Chelsea fan, I think he embellished contact. But that is what I am talking about - the recurrence and the priority.
What this also entails is that it forces the referees to take his history into account, even in the face of a blatant foul. They are more likely to brush it off as a case of "Neymar being Neymar" instead of calling the foul rightly.
Great players do not have to win every game. They only need to lose the games they lose and still hold their head high. I, for one, do not think that Neymar can say that for himself after this World Cup.