Will the real Neymar stand up?
He was expected to take his place in the pantheon of greats in this World Cup, but all Neymar has done is to make him the world's favourite meme material over the last few weeks.
This, despite him, scoring two goals, setting up one and showing off some dazzling skills as Brazil trudged into the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup in comfortable fashion.
Issue at hand
So what seems to be the bone of contention? In the second round victory over CONCACAF rivals Mexico, the most expensive footballer in the world was suddenly found to be writhing in pain beyond the sidelines, he seemed to be having an epileptic fit even as the referee and fellow players looked on. Overacting? Replays, however, showed that Miguel Layun, the Mexican attacker, had, indeed, stepped on his shin while retrieving the ball.
Neymar's detractors had a field day nonetheless because it wasn't the first time that the PSG forward had done this in the World Cup. Even here, he seemed to have recovered all too quickly. On those other occasions, the harsh glare of replays had established that Neymar had been milking it. Milking it so badly (or brilliantly!) that he has picked up the dubious epithet of a serial diver during the course of this campaign. Countless jokes are doing the rounds of the internet, numerous memes and articles abound.
In the tough opener against Switzerland, Brazil were left frustrated for long stretches and in the end settled for a 1-1 draw. One of the most dramatic incidents of the second half centred on Neymar though. Under a challenge inside the box, Neymar was (apparently) sent plummeting, theatrically rolling on the ground multiple times before drawing to a halt. Definite penalty! Or not. The replays showed to the world that Neymar had barely been touched. A saga had begun.
Against Costa Rica, things took an even more curious turn. With the game heading towards another frustrating draw, Neymar was again felled in the box. This time the Brazilian ace went to ground waving his hands in the air as if to clutch on to something, anything before the earth swallowed him up This time the referee blew his whistle and pointed to the spot.
They came to the turnaround, the ref consulted VAR and overturned his own decision as again, there was minimal contact and the Brazilian, it seemed, had gone down all too easily. He was falling into a perverse pattern, a pantomime performance that he is seemingly addicted to.
Howls of derision did not deter the 26-year-old ex-Barcelona star to take to the ground on a couple of occasions in the final group match against Serbia as well
Indeed, Neymar's reactions seem to indicate that the world has got him wrong, that people like the Mexican coach are out to tarnish his image. So does that mean the series of rolls and dives will continue as the Selecao face-off against the resurgent Belgians in the game of the night?
People tend to have a short memory. As Brazil were hammered 1-7 by eventual champions Germany in Belo Horizonte in the 2014 World Cup, their star player, a 22-year-old Neymar sat out the match with a back injury. He had broken a vertebra in the quarter-final against Colombia after being kneed in the back by Juan Zuniga, a challenge that was not picked up by the referee and which left Neymar in tears.
He certainly wasn't diving in that World Cup, in fact, he was taking them to the trophy in heroic fashion in front of home fans and had already scored four goals as the Selecao closed in on a record sixth World Cup triumph.
This, despite facing seriously rough treatment from opponents and recovering from an injury midway to rejoin the quest. Taken in that context, he might have reasons to take extra care in protecting himself as defenders swarm around him once again during this year's quadrennial showpiece.
We want to see the rainbow flicks rather than the amateurish dives. Brazil need their trump card more than ever as we enter the final phase of the World Cup. Neymar is a magician, his ever-changing hair, his antics on the pitch and his petulance off it might make one think otherwise, but he has the skills to become the foremost footballer in the world as the twin domination of the global game in the form of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo enters its last laps.
Belgium have perhaps played the best football of the tournament so far. With a galaxy of stars including Eden Hazar, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne in their squad, that wouldn't have come as a surprise. They did get a shock against Japan but that escape might reinvigorate the side and make them all the more dangerous. For that reason, Brazil will need Neymar to be at his best.
He moved to PSG to move out of Messi's shadow and leading Brazil to a World Cup triumph will go a considerable distance in propelling him to the greatness that he craves. For that, the theatrics need to stop. A Neymar in full flow is devastating but his on-field antics are preventing us from seeing the real Neymar in action in this World Cup and giving the naysayers ample material and for good reason. Will the real Neymar stand up?