Neymar gets his goal – but will he be Brazil’s Cristiano Ronaldo or succumb to the pressure like Lionel Messi?

Neymar's tears marked the emotional climax of another emotional afternoon for a player whose own personal psychodrama is swiftly becoming one of the central stories of this World Cup

Jack Pitt-Brooke
St Petersburg Stadium
Friday 22 June 2018 15:56
Brazil World Cup profile

Neymar scored with the last kick of this game and after the celebrations had finished, when the final whistle went, he fell to his knees, head in both hands, shaking with the force of his own tears.

Utterly oblivious to the Costa Ricans around him trying to shake his hand, he sat down on the ground, legs outstretched, looking like a man in no mood to get up. It took Fernandinho, Miranda and Gabriel Jesus to console him and drag him up to his feet.

It was the emotional climax of another emotional afternoon for Neymar, a player whose own personal psychodrama is swiftly becoming one of the central stories of this World Cup. Is he going to be to Brazil what Cristiano Ronaldo is to Portugal, converting expectation into motivation and carrying the team on his shoulders? Or is he going to be what Lionel Messi now is for Argentina, a man finally buckling under that weight, not inspired but so crushed that he now looks unrecognisable?

The truth is somewhere in between. Neymar, unlike Messi, has a goal to his name now, tapping in Douglas Costa’s 97th minute cross to kill a game that Philippe Coutinho had effectively won seven minutes before. And Neymar, unlike Messi, is likely to still be here in the knock-out rounds. Brazil should still be favourites to win Group G, even though they were not at their best again today, looking restricted and anxious as ever.

Because before Neymar and Coutinho’s two added-time goals, it was a long 90 minutes of frustration for Brazil, up against a Costa Rica side pulling out every trick to stop them and slow them down. And for Neymar it had been an afternoon of extreme exasperation. Tite has spoken about players taking responsibility and here he looked so desperate to do that, to win the game for Brazil by himself, that when it did not work he barely knew how to react.

That is why his added time goal - a meaningless goal in the scheme of things - was so important. Because for the 20 minutes up until then he had looked like a broken man, one who had just had the moment he had dreamed of stolen away from him. Stolen by a man in a referee’s uniform watching on a TV screen upstairs.

Because Neymar had thought, if only for less than a minute, that he was going to win this game himself. It had been another long afternoon getting kicked, and it was still 0-0 with 12 minutes left, but he would have his reward, and Costa Rica would have their punishment. Bjorn Kuipers had finally awarded him a penalty, his moment to beat Keylor Navas and win Brazil the game. He celebrated with a little hug with Coutinho before picking up the ball, ready to deliver justice.

But this is the 2018 World Cup, where no decision is final. The pause was ominously long and sure enough, VAR intervened. Kuipers consulted his colleagues, ran back over and reversed his decision. Neymar was denied his penalty, and in his mind, denied his justice.

It was probably the correct decision on balance, and the initial award of the penalty felt harsh on Costa Rica. Neymar, cutting into the box from the left, had checked back inside. Giancarlo Gonzalez, struggling to get keep up, had placed his left hand on Neymar’s stomach. Neymar stopped, stuck out his arms in mock surprise and fell slowly on his back, like a man collapsing into bed.

Neymar of Brazil reacts after scoring the 2-0 goal

It was a surprise that Kuipers had given the penalty in the first place, given how little protection Neymar had got before then.

Neymar is not always a sympathetic figure but it was difficult not to feel sympathy for him here. Whatever you may think of his move to PSG, his entourage, his hair-cut, his self-importance, his self-awareness, he just looked here like a man trying to play the best football that he could in difficult conditions.

Of course fame brings scrutiny but this month in Russia Neymar has mainly been scrutinised by the cynical boots and unpunished studs of his opponents. Against Switzerland on Sunday he was fouled 10 times, a ludicrous number, and here again Costa Rica tried the same plan. David Guzman flattened him, Johan Venegas tripped him but the real fight was with Cristian Gamboa, Costa Rica’s right wing-back.

This was the battle of the World Cup so far, a compelling test between creator and destroyer. Every time Neymar got the ball, there was Gamboa, intervening with violence, the only response that he had. Gamboa was fortunate that referee Bjorn Kuipers was so liberal in applying the laws. And given the lack of official protection, it is hard to blame Neymar for trying to take the law into his own hands, going down seeking a reward.

Brazil's forward Neymar cries after scoring a goal

That is why Neymar was so crestfallen when the penalty was taken away from him, and he thought his chance to win the game was lost. Before then he had glimmers of promise but never quite been at his best. His touch does still not look perfect and twice in the first half he lost control of the ball, even setting up Costa Rica’s best chance of the game, which Celso Borges missed.

Just before the reversed penalty, Neymar had broken down the middle, seizing a loose ball, whipping a shot just beyond the far post from 20 yards out. Not an easy chance, but a chance that Neymar at his best would convert. He buried his face in his shirt in anguish, for his team and for himself.

Of course at the end Brazil won, but the winning goal came from a move from Marcelo, Roberto Firmino, Jesus and Coutinho, with Neymar barely involved. After that goal, but before his, with the rest of his team-mates trying to run down the clock, he unleashed a brilliant rainbow kick up and over the head of Yeltsin Tejeda. A wonderful piece of skill, perfectly executed, but the move of a player still desperately trying to steal the stage before the curtain call, straining to make up for something, rather than just keeping the ball in the corner, for the good of the team.

Neymar got his goal at the end but there is still a sense, two games in, that this brilliant player has yet to fully deliver for his team. And no-one will feel that stronger than he does.

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