Lionel Messi is a key, and Cristiano Ronaldo is a battering ram, then Neymar is a lock-pick. The slender Brazilian forward, who scored one goal and assisted on another in his team's 2–0 win over Mexico in their World Cup Round of 16 match, on Monday, slips through defenses, twists, probes, tickles, and slides. He flirts his way through impenetrable formations, he slinks, he charms the ball into the goal. Messi looks like he was born on the soccer pitch. Ronaldo looks like he spent a lot of money to buy it. Neymar lacks that air of easy belonging; no matter how much attention he receives, no matter how exclusively he occupies the other team's defenders, he always seems to have snuck into the middle a match in which he isn't supposed to be playing. But it's that illicit quality, that sense of having ducked the universe's rope line, that makes him so dangerous.
At the club level, Neymar is the most expensive player in the history of soccer, having completed a contentious €222-million transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain last year. Compared to other players of his calibre, he seems to be relatively unpopular with fans, at least in the English-speaking world—or, anyway, at least on my Twitter feed, where he's often criticized for diving. And he does dive. He’s one of the most flagrant and theatrical divers I’ve ever seen in soccer; the sight of him flopping in unspeakable torment, only to hop up and trot merrily down the pitch once the referee has shown his opponent a yellow card, is more or less a weekly staple of the game.
I can't bring myself to blame him for it, though. In fact, I enjoy it. Neymar dives the way he scores goals—as if he were getting away with something—and why not? He's five feet nine, about as heavy as a zephyr, and he spends every match getting clobbered by opposing centerbacks. What do you do, if you’re a rogue in a world of square-toed disciplinarians? You trick your enemies! You use disguises. You employ guile. Neymar is the Robin Hood of imaginary broken ankles.
In the fifty-first minute of Monday’s match, with the score tied at 0–0, Neymar took the ball on the left flank. For a moment, he probed with it, cutting horizontally along the edge of Mexico's area, dragging first two and then three defenders with him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of his teammates, the winger Willian, creeping toward the area. As he passed the spot toward which Willian was moving, Neymar, without looking around, flicked the ball backward with his right heel. Willian took the pass and made a quick move into the open space that Neymar had created by pulling so many defenders after him. As Willian surged toward the left goalpost, Neymar curled toward the right. Willian played in a low cross and Neymar, sliding with his leg outstretched, poked the ball into the goal. 1–0 Brazil.
In a hard-fought, generally thrilling match—haven’t they all been, at this World Cup?—it was a spectacularly Neymar moment, a little dash of thievish dazzle that Mexico couldn’t have prepared for and couldn’t possibly emulate. His only more characteristic moment may have occurred in the seventieth minute, when the Mexican fullback Miguel Layún seemed to deliberately step on his ankle. For several seconds, Neymar’s body convulsed as though four million volts were coursing through it. A viewer new to soccer might have thought he’d never walk again. A few minutes later, when Layún lost the ball, Neymar got it, and he scampered lightly up the pitch and passed to Firmino for Brazil’s second goal.
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