MOSCOW, (Reuters) – As Brazil forward Neymar broke down and wept uncontrollably on the pitch at the end of his team’s hard-fought 2-0 win over Costa Rica on Friday, it was hard not to be moved by his reaction.
For the second World Cup in a row, the 26-year-old is carrying the hopes of 200 million countrymen on his shoulders and his emotional outburst showed how much the win meant to him, and the level of pressure he is under.
Equally, it was just as hard not to be infuriated by his behaviour during the Group E match where Brazil had to wait until stoppage time before breaking down the stubborn Central American defence, with Neymar himself scoring the second goal.
Throughout the game, Neymar collapsed to the ground at the slightest contact from an opponent and complained constantly to referee Bjorn Kuipers.
At one point, the Dutch official made a “keep quiet” sign before he eventually lost patience and booked Neymar when the Brazilian threw the ball down in disgust at a yet another decision he did not agree with.
Minutes before the yellow card, Neymar thought he won a penalty when he fell over backwards theatrically after a slight touch from Giancarlo Gonzalez.
But, after an exemplary use of the video assistant referee (VAR) system, the referee decided that the contact did not merit Neymar’s tumble and changed his mind.
Exasperatingly, if Neymar had stayed on his feet, he might have had a clear shooting chance.
It is a trait that has marked his career, possibly influenced by an incident in 2010 when he was still playing in Brazilian club football with Santos.
After publicly remonstrating with coach Dorival Junior, who refused to allow him to take a penalty in a Brazilian championship match, Neymar was dropped from the team.
But, instead of backing the coach, the club fired him and the 18-year-old player was quickly reinstated.
Similarly, Neymar became used to Brazilian referees giving him a free kick for every minor contact and fall.
However, with World Cup officials less likely to indulge Neymar, there is a risk that he could become his own worst enemy.
He often wastes good attacking chances by choosing to take a tumble instead and, at a crucial stage during the second half, his behaviour had a contagious effect and his team mates became distracted by all the fuss he created.
Brazil’s previous two World Cup coaches, Dunga and Luiz Felipe Scolari, had a tendency to lead and encourage protests against referees but the current incumbent Tite is a much calmer presence and it is surprising he has not tried to curb Neymar’s excesses.
Neymar has shown how important the World Cup is to him and, to his credit, he never gave up on Friday, even when the ball refused to go in.
But Brazil’s last World Cup campaign ended with a collective mental blackout in their 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany and there are already signs that their temperament could cost them again.