Neymar is turning Heel

I didn’t get here because I’m a nice guy.
— Neymar Jr

Neymar is embracing his dark side and setting himself up to be football's new villain.

Neymar more than any contemporary footballer is a business. He has been earmarked for stardom since he begun playing senior football and has grown up in the full glare of social media. 

According to South American football expert Tim Vickery: 

He often comes across as a pleasant and engaging young man. But there is also something of the permanent adolescent about him, a boy prince with an occasional tendency to appear as a brat. He is, as his shirt makes clear, Neymar Junior, a 26-year-old man who still defines himself as a son.

Neymar is the spoiled centre of a business entertainment empire his father has created around him. He's also a wonderfully talented footballer. He seems to be aware of his image and almost deliberately cultivating it to fit some of the tropes of 'The Heel' or antagonist in wrestling.

The Heel is:

Often portrayed as behaving in an immoral manner by breaking rules or otherwise taking advantage of their opponents outside the bounds of the standards of the match. Others do not (or rarely) break rules, but instead exhibit unlikeable, appalling and deliberately offensive and demoralizing personality traits such as arrogance, cowardice or contempt for the audience. Many heels do both, cheating as well as behaving nastily. No matter the type of heel, the most important job is that of the antagonist role - Wikipedia

Neymar's behaviour at this World Cup has certainly been regarded by many observers as immoral and arrogant and his propensity for theatrics is costing him the regard of the public. Normally watching performance of such a high calibre is a pleasure but Stuart Barnes’s description of him as 'repellent’ has plenty of backers. His showboating divides opinion; usually tricks like his are held up as part of the Brazilian experience and lionised in iconic commercials. When Neymar does it he is painted as a dickhead.

Neymar has not really divided opinion at this World Cup. He’s been, by relatively common consensus, an entitled little tosser.

What has been overlooked is that his football has actually been brilliant.

In an article for The Ringer, Ryan O’Hanlon drew my attention to this chart from FiveThirtyEight that runs statistical output from the tournament through a historical filter to find corollaries from past tournaments. Neymar’s 2018 performance is most similar to Johan Cruyff’s from 1974 when the Dutch master was widely acknowledged to be at the peak of his powers.

Here’s a succinct analysis of his performance:

Neymar is one of the world’s best players and is performing in a very unusual manner, similar to Cruyff and also strikingly to various Argentinian geniuses from Maradona to Ortega to Messi. He left Barcelona to become the World’s Greatest™ and is actually performing like it. Not quite there but historically up there with some of the very greatest for sure.

Why would Neymar want to turn heel and play the bad guy?

It's not as if he doesn't know how to behave. At Barcelona he was apparently very easy to manage and universally popular with the other players who broke ranks with club policy by expressing genuine disappointment that he was leaving, pointedly remarking that they would always be friends. Perhaps it was because he had to defer to Messi as well as buy into an overriding club culture that was rigorously enforced by strong characters like Pique and Mascherano.

I'd argue that the reason is right there. He engineered a move to PSG to spearhead a 'project' and to become the best player in the world. He knows that Barcelona will always be Messi's team and one with a culture that he will never quite surpass. PSG doesn't have the same historical associations or former players with his ability and he can make the ascension to Ballon D'Or status there relatively unimpeded. 

He has been allowed to dominate the landscape at PSG with his every whim catered to. to the point that he has two physios purely dedicated to him and the club threw him a 3 day birthday celebration bigger than Yaya Toure’s wildest dreams where the manager Unai Emery had to cut his birthday cake. He is indulged well beyond what seems sensible and 'nothing is allowed to come in the way of his happiness.'

The next reason for him to turn heel is to prepare for when he returns to directly oppose Messi. Real Madrid have always coveted Neymar and there are rumours that he will sign there this summer, directly opposing Messi. Neymar wants to define himself in opposition to the quiet superstar by leaning into his own brashness and love of the spotlight. In this respect he fulfils the requirements of a subset of the heel in the Narcissist.

The Narcissist. Overinflated, good-looking heel. He knows he is better than anyone else on the roster, and that adds to the ego, which gives them great heat. Go look at the wildly-popular UFC. Look at people like Tito Ortiz or Conor McGregor. If they were pro wrestlers, they would be heels [...] But they don't run away [...] they take on the #1 contender and either demolish them or go down swinging
- TV Tropes

Neymar is preparing the ground for a return to Spain where he will challenge Messi for dominance of La Liga. He will define himself in opposition to him, using Messi's status as his own personal challenge to surmount or 'go down swinging'. Whatever you think about Neymar and his theatrics, he is a spectacular player who deals with some rough treatment. In addition Tim Vickery states that Neymar's reactions are born of a different refereeing style in Brazilian futsal and domestic football in which physical contact is more harshly refereed than in Europe:

He has always been spoiled, and he exists almost outside of the codes of the way football is played.
He wants to redefine football as a non-contact sport [...] not all of his simulation is actually simulation. He genuinely believes that he has been fouled.

This interpretation is certainly intriguing and could maybe explain why he has famously spent 14 minutes lying on the ground, inspiring memes aplenty. He also attracted criticism for having two haircuts in the time it took to play one game and responded with an Instagram post involving Nike where he stated:

I didn't get here because I'm a nice guy. I did not get here because my name is Neymar. I did not get here because of my haircut. I got here because of my football. If my football brought me to where I am, if it made me conquer the things I did, then I don't need to change.

This could be read as him dismissing the other stuff as frippery, that his focus is on his football, which his performances belie to be fair. He is not the only footballer with a penchant for outlandish haircuts and tattoos. Many footballers employ their own barber and bring staff with them on holiday.

I had a friend who was a nanny for an Inter Milan footballer and apparently they had staff for everything. As a nanny her only duties were really accompanying the kids to and from school; they had a chef, driver and tutor so the rest of her time was largely her own. Footballers are generally a coddled bunch and have earned the money with which to be so. Neymar is merely at the top of this particular tree and therefore embodies many of these behaviours.

The difference with Neymar’s comments here is that it can be read as a ‘I’m right you’re wrong’ statement, that criticism of him doesn’t apply. He's saying ‘I don’t need to change’.

It’s easy to forget how Neymar came across at the previous World Cup in Brazil where, as the captain and undisputed star of the side, he was expected to carry them to glory. He often seemed like the only sane person in Brazil and appeared remarkably unaffected by the outrageous pressure placed on his shoulders. He was also the victim of a pretty violent challenge which fractured a vertebrae in his back and ruled him out of the rest of the tournament, after which his team fell to pieces in the infamous 7-1 defeat to Germany.

Why is Neymar’s behaviour now so different? He broke down in tears after the first pool game in Russia and now reacts to challenges with extreme displays of faux pain and suffering. He actually had what appeared to be a legitimate penalty decision overturned by making an unnecessarily exaggerated fall to the ground against Costa Rica and at PSG he famously argued with Edinson Cavani over taking a penalty before finding that the crowd had sided against him due to him denying Cavani an opportunity at a record breaking goal.

It's an amazing contradiction as he is known for communicating very well and naturally in both his press dealings and with millions of younger people through his social media. It might well be fair to see him as a powerful symbol of an overprotected, over-parented generation.

Perhaps Neymar has realised that people hate him. On the one hand he is the world’s most marketable player, the definition of the Gen-Z footballer who has lived his career in the spotlight since the age of 17, stage managed by his father and adored by millions on social media. On the other hand he is seen as a menace and a blight upon the sport, emblematic of its worst excesses, crashing out of World Cup 2018 without much fanfare or sympathy.

He experiences love through his phone and hate from the stadium and media. Maybe he’s decided that he’s above the love of the real crowd and has decided to break bad. He is the first to truly be in the entertainment business. CR7 has always been more brand than person and Lionel Messi has always kept himself to himself, eschewing any real insight or opportunity to express himself that doesn’t involve having a football at his feet. He is coming for their place at the top of the sport.

Neymar has been spectacularly famous from the age of 17 and knows how to entertain with and without a ball. He is the antagonist, annoying everyone as he carves up the football pitch with his outlandish skill and talent. He is turning heel in order to further his ambitions as a sportsman and an entertainer, writing his own history and chasing the mantle of the World's Greatest.