It says a great deal about the contribution that Neymar made for Brazil at the World Cup that more attention focused on his theatrics than his skills.
The world’s most expensive player and his gold-clad team-mates crashed out at the quarter-final stage of the competition, outplayed 2-1 by Belgium in an encounter in which the €222 million man had little meaningful say.
Before that feeble exit, which left-back Marcelo compared to the 7-1 loss to Germany four years ago, Swiss outlet RTS had measured the amount of time the Brazilian had spent ‘injured’. In the opening four matches, he had spent an astonishing 13 minutes and 50 seconds on the deck.
Neymar’s antics were such that he has been the focus of ridicule all over the internet, but while these condemn the ex-Barcelona star in a light-hearted manner, fears have spread that the uglier side of his game will influence young players to replicate him.
Indeed, over the course of the last year, there has been an increasing body of evidence to suggest that Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe is coming under the spell of his colleague.
Mbappe’s scintillating performance against Argentina in the thrilling 4-3 last-16 clash earned him comparisons with Ronaldo, but it is the Brazilian’s successor who currently influences the burgeoning star – and not necessarily in a positive manner.
Never has that been more apparent than at this World Cup.
During France’s feisty last-16 victory over Uruguay – a match that threatened to boil over on several occasions but never quite got out of control – Mbappe came under the spotlight after clashing with Cristian Rodriguez as the game approached its closing stages.
With his side 2-0 up, the teenager goaded the South Americans with a showboating pass on the edge of the box. The moment echoed Neymar’s rainbow flick against Costa Rica earlier in the tournament, a dramatic flourish in a game in which he had been largely wasteful and Brazil had been pushed hard by the Central Americans, who did not merit such humiliation.
Mbappe’s embellishment, meanwhile, was a relatively harmless flick, much like the tap his experienced opponent gave him moments later to warn the youngster to follow the professional footballer’s code and be more respectful. The Frenchman, though, crumpled to the ground in the style of his club-mate and sparked what proved to be the game’s flashpoint.
“He must learn the good things from Neymar, not what he did against Rodriguez.” France international legend Alain Giresse told Goal when quizzed on the subject. “Neymar is 26 years old, Mbappe is 19.”
At 19, though, Mbappe should be old enough to know better, and to that end it should be stressed that Neymar’s actions are merely confirming old habits as opposed to building new ones. Mbappe, after all, has earned a reputation in his homeland of, euphemistically, going to ground too easily.
He has, however, witnessed at first hand the adulation the Brazilian wins due to his eye for the outrageous. With his penchant for dribbling and his taste for the spectacular, Neymar has built a loyal fanbase and with it a formidable brand. Clearly, Mbappe is tempted by this.
In matches when he is too relaxed, or his team is in a comfortable position, he has shown an increasing tendency to complicate matters or, as Rodriguez discovered, to wilfully embarrass opponents with his teenage cheek.
Such actions are excusable at Parc des Princes, where the patrons will thrive upon such displays of audacity, but the middle of Russia on the game’s international stage is not the place to peddle such an act.
“Of course he has to learn from Neymar, but he must take only the good things,” Giresse warned.
He is, after all, a superstar still developing.
“He’s a phenomenon,” former France boss Laurent Blanc told Le Parisien on Sunday. “That’s not to say he’ll make us win all the time. He’s young. At 19, you can’t have everything, it’s not possible.
“He’s still going to misfire sometimes – as little as possible, I hope for him and the France team.”
When he returns to Paris after the competition – whether that is as a world champion or not – Giresse believes it is up to Neymar to take him under his wing and council him. The Brazilian has never before been tasked with the role as mentor, and at 26 is still relatively young to be doing so, yet it could be the answer to curing his own immaturity, which has so readily been displayed all summer.
“Neymar must give him good advice,” Giresse argued. “Mbappe can’t put him in the shadows yet, he must improve, he does not know football yet. He must learn to play in all situations, when there are spaces or when there are none.”
During his first season in France, Neymar might have been PSG’s outstanding player, but he was never a leader. If he can embrace such a role over the next 12 months, it will not only positively affect his game, but that of his young cohort too.
Then we can stop talking about his theatrics and start focusing on exactly why he’s the game’s most valuable commodity again.