Why does everyone hate Neymar?
"You may think I exaggerate, and sometimes I do. But the truth is I suffer on the pitch."
For the neutral, picking a side to root for on Wednesday night was a no-brainer. It was the mega-rich star-studded Qatari-owned brand name celebrating only their 50th year of existence, versus the swashbuckling, coronavirus-beating, relative minnows from Bergamo who still send every new-born in their local area a free club shirt and cartons of milk. To call it David vs Goliath would be overstating the point a touch, particularly as Atalanta went into the game off the back of an outstanding Serie A campaign and were many pundits' plump to pip PSG to the semi-finals. But at the very least it was Daniel LaRusso against the full might of sensei John Kreese and the Cobra Kai dojo. Sadly for the northern Italians, it was the baddies who ultimately produced the metaphorical crane kick to boot them out.
The social media fallout from the result was fascinating. So many fans of other clubs took Atalanta's defeat personally and seemed genuinely gutted that their fairytale season had been so abruptly discontinued. There was also a level of contempt for PSG, as if their two late goals were an affront to decency rather than a spirited comeback to be applauded. Both during the game and afterwards, a certain player was the totem for general resentment and acute criticism. As per usual, Neymar received heightened attention. One can only imagine the volume and variety of Neymar-focused memes that went unused at full-time. But for the Parisians' dramatic late late show, his miss early in the game would surely have gone down as the moment when a much-hyped talent fluffed his lines.
But what is it about the mercurial Brazilian that attracts such intense negative energy? Why is he so disproportionately reviled by football fans of all colours and denominations? The most common response seems to be his propensity to go to ground. But then you dig a little deeper and it's just as much about how he goes to ground. Many players dive on the regular, it is certainly not a USP of Neymar or anyone else. More than ever, it is an accepted and indeed expected part of the modern game. Whereas before it was roundly condemned as bad form, now players are almost praised for their streetwise smarts and canniness to draw a foul or exaggerate contact. It seems that the nature of Neymar's histrionics are especially irritating - to both those directly affected his antics and also those with no skin in a particular game.
It cannot be denied that the 28-year-old's demeanour can sometimes regress to that of a pained two-year-old on a sugar high. He can pirouette and playact with the best of them, whilst maintaining the facial expression of a Big Brother contestant who has misconstrued the news of a music icon's demise as that of a housemate's untimely expiration. But it's still slightly odd that this in itself can elicit such ire. Rationally, the optics of his behaviour shouldn't matter a jot. The way in which he goes down really shouldn't be relevant beyond the fact that he has gone down. For his part, Neymar has admitted to his theatrical bent, arguing "You may think I exaggerate, and sometimes I do. But the truth is I suffer on the pitch," after criticism following the 2018 World Cup. The mea culpa lost some integrity for the fact it was sponsored by Gillette.
The most aggressive and PG un-friendly criticisms of Neymar use words like 'fanny' and 'pussy' and other words referring to female genitalia, and perhaps that consciously (or sub-consciously) insinuates a level of 'unmanliness'. Maybe his behaviour and the way he exhibits it does not sit well with an accepted idea of masculinity. Or perhaps he exudes a type of Peter Pan persona on the pitch whereby he has never grown up and that just rubs folk up the wrong way. Such cod psychology is uneducated and doesn't get to the truth of anything, but it can't be denied that Neymar does attract extremely unusual levels of visceral reaction. It is one thing to not care much for a particular player, or even dislike them to a point, but the thing with Neymar is that people seem to care a little too much. To be repulsed is to be invested.
As both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo approach the autumn of their respective careers, thoughts turn to who will succeed them as the best players on the planet. For years now, Neymar has been widely accepted as the most prominent and likely heir. He has everything - the outrageous talent, the profile, the brand and personal charisma. He also has the necessary ego to wear the crowd lightly. But he has not followed the script in terms of his club career. He was at Barcelona, one of football's greatest and most hallowed institutions, and yet chose to leave for a club younger than his own dad. In his three years at the Parc des Princes he has won numerous titles in every season. Should PSG win the Champions League this month, he will have won more honours in France than in Catalunya. But many consider them stolen from 'farmers'.
Perhaps that is at the crux of the vilification of Neymar. Perhaps that is why so many people care about him (in a negative way) more than they probably should. If the collective wanted his story to go another way - for him to fulfil their footballing ideal and allow them to take vicarious pleasure in that - he wasn't playing ball. He chose the riches of Paris Saint-Germain and seems happy enough in that choice - which of course only makes it worse. Had he fritted away his career in any dramatic fashion, he could well have been allocated cult status like Adriano; if he was seen to be utterly beguiled and beholden to hedonistic instincts like a Ronaldinho or Faustino Asprilla or George Best, he'd be lauded as a maverick good time Charlie. But none of his choices are perceived as instinctive - instead they are painted as cynical and joyless.
Whenever Neymar fails - or is perceived to have failed - it is greeted with an overwhelming sentiment of schadenfreude. We are all Nelson Muntz pointing and laughing. But why? Schadenfreude for what? For being a version of himself that doesn't calibrate to the version we all had in our heads? Or maybe he just looks like a prick when falling over and screaming for the ref's protection for a foul we wouldn't be remotely arsed about if it wasn't him and he wasn't acting like that. Neymar is his own sort of enigma, and probably doesn't give two hoots about the negative attention that comes his way. But it would be a bit of a pity if we allowed some vague sense of irritation and annoyance to rob us of truly enjoying what remains of a singular talent.