You’re only making it worse when you deliver your mea culpa via Gillette ad, but Neymar doesn’t have much to apologize for anyway. He’s a waifish five-nine, scores in almost every game, and is an infuriatingly good dribbler, so naturally he gets the hell kicked out of him. Most of his oft-lamented diving is self-preservational, an injury-avoidance method and an indication that hey ref, I am taking a beating out here. What offends, not just huffy fair play fetishists, but everyone with half a grip on reality, is not that Neymar exaggerates or occasionally invents contact, but the comic falsity of his acting. He gets nudged, falls, rolls away like loose timber down an incline, gets whacked in the chest and holds his face like Prodigy has just made good on his “Shook Ones” threat. These aren’t human responses to pain. They’re cribbed from diagrams out of some Tex Avery-conceived medical dictionary. You halfway expect him to rise from the pitch with little canaries circling his head.
David Mamet’s maxim that drama is the slow exposure of a lie perhaps explains why Neymar’s theatrics are at best a waste of time and at worst moderately annoying: the lie and its exposure happen simultaneously, and all that’s left over is tedium. After he’s been clipped and tumbles to the pitch, as he writhes from left wing to touchline, moving in ways he wouldn’t be able to if his ankle were actually broken, the referee is placing the ball at the spot of the infraction. He’s produced a card or he hasn’t. All we’re really doing in that moment, drinking in his performative anguish through a zoom lens, is being alerted to the fact that Neymar got fouled, which is something we usually know the second it happens. The question you might ask the prostrate, howling Brazilian is the same question you ask, with some amount of exasperation in your voice, a dog that’s barking for reasons you can’t figure: what you do you want, man?
But this is the full extent of his trespass. Lots of players allow themselves to be knocked to the ground by glancing trips and shoves, or they stumble over a defender’s clumsy jagged knee rather than smack into it. They feign injury to make a point that they could have gotten injured, had they a whit less guile or agility. Neymar’s overwrought phoniness was a bonafide World Cup storyline, but keep in mind that the opening goal of its final was set up by an Antoine Griezmann dive. He knocked the ball too far out in front of himself and went searching—successfully by the ref’s measure, with clear fraudulence to those of us with access to slo-mo replay—for Marcelo Brozović’s leg. The beautiful subtlety of soccer includes its discreet ugliness: a fullback putting some extra oomph into his ass-swivel as he blocks an advancing opponent; an out-of-luck midfielder launching himself over a defender’s toe; the schoolyard pinching, trash-talking, and calf-scraping that goes on between defenders and forwards. Players take every advantage they can find. It’s up to referees to sort out what they deserve.
Maybe Neymar tests the ref’s judgment more than most players. Maybe he’s a pest. It’s difficult not to read critiques of his on-pitch antics as a broader critique of him as a person. He moved from Santos to Barcelona in a convoluted deal that involved Barça trying to screw Spanish tax authorities and a third-party investor out of money while maximizing the amount of cash given to Neymar and his father. Following his Paris Saint-Germain switch, there were a bunch of stories—founded and unfounded; differentiating them is impossible—about the special privileges he enjoyed at his new club. The wildest rumor was that he isn’t allowed be tackled in training.
Who knows if that’s actually true, but if it were, it would contribute to the princely, spoiled image Neymar has established over the past few years. Yet he’s not unique in that respect, even if he is uniquely criticized. Every star is difficult and treated at least a little bit preciously. Leo Messi, who’s about as squeaky clean as a world famous athlete can get, is—it’s said out the side of journalists’ mouths, for fear of either retribution or making too big a deal out of a minor thing—a tad difficult, oversure of himself, sensitive to embarrassment and distant from his coaches. This is understandable enough. Being Leo Messi must be weird. He deals with it in his own way. He also doesn’t dive—in the popular imagination, at any rate. In reality, he’s no stranger to the contact-free foul.
This isn’t to draw false equivalencies. Messi seems aloof where Neymar seems oblivious and self-centered, but he also seems like a familiar kind of jerk immense money and talent and teenaged fame sometimes produces. It’s tempting to draw a connection between the sycophantic treatment he’s received for his entire adult life and him making like a stabbing victim on the pitch. Like, does he think we’re buying this because his entourage laughs at too many of his jokes? But that’s a leap. More likely, he’s an extravagantly flamboyant player and an extravagantly flamboyant play-actor. Have you ever befriend somebody who’s bright and funny and tells great stories but also likes to get bogged down in the odd ego-flexingly pointless two-hour argument? And you remember, at once, in the grip of their unpleasantness, that an inner emptiness informs how magnificent they are the rest of the time? Neymar’s like that, only transported from the bar into the athletic realm. He’s fussy all the way down, for better and for worse.
In a sharp piece on diving in n+1, Alejandro Chacoff writes that in a game in which almost every play demands interpretation, it’s worth asking why the dive — one among many forms of foul play — has become such a focus of outrage and disgust. He doesn’t arrive at a clean conclusion, though in the process of philosophizing, he chips away at some profound mysteries about the sport’s inherent law-eluding wildness and the ways subjective morality is capriciously or self-servingly applied to it. Let me give a simple, insufficient answer to Chacoff’s question that hopefully deepens our understanding of—deep, enervated breath—our understanding of athletes: we’re so outraged and disgusted by diving because it’s permissible to be, and we apply that righteous enmity unevenly, particularly toward players we don’t like. Something about a player’s personality or style rubs us the wrong way, and we use this thing that it’s okay to rant about to express that feeling indirectly. See, here is the thing that’s wrong with Neymar. Here is the proof. When all we’re truly proving is something that doesn’t require evidence: personal distaste. It’s not that deep, though we will go to impressive depths to justify it.
So what’s wrong with Neymar? He dives too much, with too much panache. That and a bunch of other stuff that’s harder to explain.