Brilliance. Book-ended by bullshit. Or maybe that should be flipped around.
Either way, the story of Neymar and this World Cup contains a healthy amount of one and an unhealthy amount of the other.
Where that story goes from here, we don’t yet know, but it goes. Brazil’s tale at Russia 2018 has not yet been told. Not by a long shot.
Neymar’s latest chapter, however, saw his personal plot twist back to the oh so tired tropes that he teased had been left behind.
Not so. His histrionics returned in uglier fashion than before in Samara and now this magnificent World Cup has to come to terms with the reality that a figure who shapes to potentially be its most dominant is also its most shameless. And that, in itself, is a shame.
Eventually, Mexico proved to be no match for Tite’s side on a searing afternoon in Samara yesterday. Brazil were backboned by strong, sturdy defence and dogged work in the frantic early moments spent on the back foot. They were mature, sensible too and waited patiently for those other moments to come — the ones where they would get to decide this game.
As their opponents tired and the spaces of the Cosmos Arena widened in the unceasing evening heat, Brazil played some truly wonderful attacking football to go with the dogged defensive solidity that was a near ever-present. Neymar was at the heart of everything that was good about Brazil’s attack in the second half.
The most impressive and most telling thing in terms of how far this story goes, was how well they were working as an interwoven unit now, moments of individualism increasingly absent.
The game’s decisive moment had been his and it was probably the most delicate too. With Mexico struggling to start the second-half as they’d started the first, Brazil bore down. Neymar cut in from the left as is his trademark.
But he eschewed what usually comes next — a solo, sometimes selfish effort on goal — for something much more welcome. With the deftest flick of his heel, he changed the point of the attack completely.
A rolling backheel gave Willian an opening and, after a fitful 51 minutes, the Chelsea midfielder strode on to the ball and made the absolute most of it. He worked even more space and fed a lethal ball across the mouth of the goal that Guillermo Ochoa had tended with defiance. Gabriel Jesus, who needed a goal, missed one. No matter, right behind him Neymar was sliding in. Brazil had a lead they were never likely to slip.
A gripping contest moved more towards gritty and Mexico got, well, stupid. They began to rack up needless, niggly fouls, many against Neymar, the tournament’s most fouled player. At first, he showed some impressive restraint. Miguel Layun tried to crudely drag him up after felling him and Neymar didn’t react like he would have done in his country’s second game here, a mortifying 90 minutes of histrionics and hounding of the referee against Costa Rica. Instead, he got on with things like he had done last time out against Serbia, focusing on the task at hand and the collective. He was in line to earn all the plaudits.
The new Neymar? Not so fast.
On 71 minutes, he again tangled with Layun and carried the ball over the byline almost on halfway, in between the Brazilian bench and the fourth official.
Layun went to retrieve the ball and, as he did, he pushed the tip of his toe on to Neymar’s right ankle. Not even the first cousin of a stamp, it was a foot movement that had more in common with a man pushing down an unwelcome dandelion.
Neymar roiled and rollicked across the turf like a soul possessed. Because, in a way, he is. Possessed with something that he can’t quite shake off that propels him to make every situation all abut him. A hellish god complex.
After intensive treatment, he was upright and sprinting in seconds. Of course he was. He went on to set up Brazil’s second late on with another superb surge and slide across for substitute Roberto Firmino.
However, as much as these antics are costing Neymar reputationally, they have the potential to cost his team too. Layun could legitimately have been booked over the incident, but officials may no longer be prey for the boy who cries wolf.
“It’s a shame for football and we wasted a lot of time because of one single player,” fumed Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio without ever naming Neymar.
“My players got more and more tired with that situation. This is a very negative image for the world of football and for the children that are following this game. This should be a strong sport. It’s a men’s sport. There shouldn’t be so much acting.”
Neymar was later presented with Osorio’s comments at Brazil’s post-match press conference, but Tite intervened before he could answer.
Instead, the match-winner spoke briefly in more general terms about criticisms that come his way.
“I think it’s more an attempt to undermine me more than anything else. I don’t much care for critics, not even for praise,” said the matchwinner.
“I have to play, I have to help my team-mates and that’s what I have to do. Nothing else.”