There are two images that will live long in the mind’s eye from Brazil’s hard-fought victory over Costa Rica. One is of Philippe Coutinho, wheeling away in celebration having broken the deadlock in the 91st minute.
Marcelo’s cross was knocked down by Roberto Firmino. Gabriel Jesus failed to control but it mattered not, with Coutinho racing into the box to poke the ball under Keylor Navas and send the sea of yellow and green inside the Saint Petersburg Stadium into raptures.
The second image is not one of unbridled ecstasy but rather something more cringe-inducing. It is of Neymar, reduced to a quivering wreck at full-time, as if Brazil had just been confirmed as World Cup champions.
The world’s most expensive footballer fell to his knees and blubbered into his hands.
Maybe it was genuine, maybe it was his moment of World Cup catharsis. It is difficult, however, to align with that opinion having watched the Brazilian forward whinge and remonstrate his way through an exasperating 90 minutes against a stubborn Costa Rica.
Watching Neymar try to undermine Dutch referee Björn Kuipers – who conducted his officiating duties impeccably despite obvious difficulties – makes buying the whole crying routine that bit more difficult. There was something about it; covering the face, planted in the middle of the pitch, which made it seem rehearsed.
Neymar got his goal in the end but, in footballing terms, he endured a mixed afternoon. The 26-year-old had simmered menacingly, threatening to explode onto the scene and put the Central Americans to the sword.
The Paris Saint-Germain star flattered to deceive, however, foiled by the outstretched limbs of Navas on more than one occasion.
Then, with Brazil reaching the endgame, Neymar tried to buy three points, hurling himself to the ground under the challenge of Geancarlo González.
Neymar crying brazil vs Costa Rica HD pic.twitter.com/7joAdTA4Lg
— Football planet (@Wc_highlights_) June 22, 2018
Hearing Neymar’s cries, Kuipers pointed to the spot. Immediately confronted by incandescent Costa Ricans, he referred to VAR, who ruled that González’s contact on Neymar was not sufficient enough as to award a penalty.
Kuipers reversed his original decision, sending Neymar into a petulant fit. Incensed at having a penalty swiped away from him, he slammed the ball down on the ground and was rightly booked for dissent when Johnny Acosta went down injured.
Neymar never stops. His will to win is unrelenting and undeniable, but it manifests itself in this ugly, entitled and impossibly arrogant brat. At one point, Neymar was essentially told to shut up by Kuipers, the referee having had just about enough of his remarks. There was, admittedly, a certain degree of satisfaction in watching Neymar being put in his place.
ITV’s footage of the player confronting the referee in the tunnel at half-time did not reflect well on his professionalism either.
It should be noted that Coutinho, too, was booked for dissent when Acosta’s injury delayed play and broke Brazil’s momentum.
However, whereas Neymar carried Brazil to the semi-final in 2014, there is a growing sense that Coutinho is this side’s emerging MVP. Having curled home a wonderful opener against Switzerland, the former Liverpool favourite proved to be the man to break the Costa Rican resistance.
It was a different goal to his soaring missile into the top corner against the Swiss. With the clock ticking past the 90th minute, Coutinho screamed into the penalty area, making sure he was in a position from which he could break Costa Rican hearts. He did just that, reacting sharpest to Firmino’s knock-down to deliver for his country once again.
His stats reflect a couple of impressive performances. In 180 minutes, Coutinho has completed seven key passes while, against Costa Rica, he was a constant influence with 98 touches (Neymar had 97).
Coutinho has started this World Cup with a real sense of purpose. While Neymar has sought reclamation after his 2014 tournament ended in agony, Coutinho, too, has been on a personal mission. He was left out of the squad in 2014 but, now considered one of the world’s finest attacking talents, is as well-equipped as his more illustrious compatriot to lift Brazil to World Cup glory.
Neymar’s gifts are incontrovertible. He is one of the most extravagantly talented footballers of his generation and, while he is not out there to make friends with referees, trying to undermine them and forgetting where he stands in the pecking order is a bad look.