clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

You can’t complain about Neymar rolling around if you ignore the teams constantly fouling him

It’s fun to laugh at Neymar’s antics. But you can’t ignore the fact that he’s getting hacked down more than anyone else.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Brazil v Mexico: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Before any conversation about Neymar’s exaggeration of contact can or should take place, we need to focus on the fact that he is by far the most fouled player in the World Cup. Lionel Messi was second before Argentina’s elimination. Neymar being the most fouled player in a competition isn’t new or special. He was by far the most fouled player in the top 5 European leagues last season. He was the most fouled player in La Liga the season before. Even going back to 2014, he was still the most fouled player, averaging a foul every 22 minutes.

Those are just official fouls. In 2014, when Juan Zúñiga literally broke Neymar’s back in the 2014 World Cup, there was no foul called. Colombia committed 30 fouls in that game, but only received four yellow cards, all after 60 minutes. Neymar was sent off a year later against Colombia in the Copa America after kicking the ball at a defender and headbutting Jeison Murillo in the resultant melee.

As they did in the World Cup of 2014, Colombia went after Neymar early and often in the 2015 game. Dani Alves summed up Colombia’s tactics as: “They know the personality of Neymar and they went in search of him...They tried to provoke him and make him nervous.”

If there’s to be a conversation and condemnation of Neymar’s exaggerations of contact, as people have loved to do so far, it needs to be preceded by the fact that the game-plan against him is just to take him down whenever he has the ball.

Neymar has been on the ground for almost 14 minutes this World Cup, a fact that is bandied about by people eager to show him up. He’s not on the ground because he desires to be (he’d much rather be dribbling and scoring goals) but because he’s fouled more than anyone else in the World Cup. He rolls around, because defenders stop him from playing by taking him down whenever he’s on the move. He screams and lays down in fake pain, and it’s annoying, but it comes after his ankle has been stepped on. His exaggerations are exaggerations of pain, of contact, not in absence of those things. Had he not screamed and thrashed, we wouldn’t have known, or even had the time to know, that Miguel Layun stepped on his ankle in the game against Mexico.

Like the Layun moment, Neymar is often the victim of fouls that are ignored or denied because of his reputation. To ignore his pain because of that reputation is odd because the idea of him as a diver somehow supersedes the obvious and statistical reality of him as the constant victims of cynical fouls. Layun stepped on his ankle and was unpunished for it, but the attention was on Neymar’s reaction. Not on the dirty play that preceded it.

The problem might be that the fouls that Neymar suffers are considered part of the game, where his exaggerations are not. The defenders who foul him are within the rules, and Neymar is acting outside of it. Neymar’s acting is also a tactic in itself, as most diving is, but one that people are uncomfortable with because it’s trying to influence the referee. Even though tactical fouling already does that. For example, the Colombian defenders rotated who took Neymar down, as to avoid yellow cards. That’s smart, but that’s also fooling the referee so that he gives warnings rather than actually cautioning anyone, leaving Neymar to suffer the consequences of his leniency.

Brazil v Mexico: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Because Neymar and his antics are seen as being outside the sport, they’re talked about as disgraces to the game. Yet the defenders that take him down are seen as executing their tactics well. And both aren’t viewed in the basis of the cause and effect that they are.

After all, even if Neymar gets it at a higher rate, most great players get the same treatment that he does. Messi is famous for not going down when he’s fouled, which is predicated on the knowledge that he is fouled a lot, and it’s one of the only ways to actually stop him. It’s accepted that you can’t take tackling out of the game, so what we’re left with instead is posturing and grandstanding about Neymar’s antics as some affront to the beauty of the game and masculinity.

The idea behind all the talk about how disgraceful Neymar is, is that great players are supposed to overcome the cynical fouls. That perseverance is a marker of their greatness, that they are able to succeed while being disrupted as much as possible. Neymar has done that. No one can debate how great he is. Regardless of the fouls and his rolling around, he’s comfortably one of the best and most entertaining players in the world, and one of the last few stars left in the World Cup.

If Neymar’s rolling around ruins the beauty of the sport, the cause of it, and the cynicism behind the fouls is much more at fault. Neymar wouldn’t be on the ground, and would be entertaining millions of people with his tricks and goals, if defenders didn’t put him on the ground to begin with.

His theatrics, as annoying as they can get, are products of how teams are forced to play him. They are a reaction, and if there is to be any hatred towards that, it needs to start first at the fact that teams are trying to make sure that he doesn’t get to participate fully in the game. That he’s provoked and abused at a rate that no one else is. If we’re comfortable with teams doing that to him, it seems very theatrical and annoying to then complain that he spends more time on the ground that we would like.