Meme Goals: Brazil’s Star Neymar Is On A Roll At The World Cup

Wander into any bar in Rio de Janeiro at present, and you are sure to meet one of the world's greatest soccer talents.

He or she might be young or old, short or tall, a beer drinker or a fan of the head-spinning cachaça spirit made from sugar cane.

Yet they'll have one thing in common.

He or she will be wearing the bright yellow No. 10 shirt identified with Neymar — the man long seen as the Brazilian national team's finest performer, who's now also its funniest.

Over the last few days — to the discomfort of his many fans — Neymar has become the butt of a worldwide tidal wave of Internet quips and spoofs, lampooning his extraordinary behavior during the World Cup.

His habit of overreacting to fouls, by hurling himself to the ground and rolling, has been generating jokes for a while. But the comedy bonanza really took off again on Monday, during Brazil's victory over Mexico, when Neymar reacted to an apparent brush on the ankle as if he'd been shot, and launched into a prolonged display of writhing that outshone even the most theatrical of professional wrestlers.

Cyber-wits will be watching eagerly on Friday (2 p.m. EST), when Brazil plays Belgium in the quarterfinals, to see if Neymar provides any more fodder for collective mirth by treating us all to another bout of theatrics.

So far, there's been much merriment at his expense. One video zinging around cyberspace imagines a gathering of the Neymar family — and shows them all rolling down a hill together.

Another has Neymar collapsing to the ground after shaking someone's hand ... after getting a pat on the cheek ... and after swatting a fly on his own arm.

In a third, the superstar is fouled on the field, falls over, rolls and then keeps on rolling across a road, along a highway, down a mountain — on and on. Some posts show people suddenly toppling over on ice, or kids falling to the turf en masse at the cry of "Neymar."

Brazilians are widely celebrated for their sense of humor, but there are signs that it could be wearing thin amid this onslaught. They have a saying that translates from Portuguese as: "Only I am allowed to speak badly of my son." In the face of foreign criticism of one of the nation's most celebrated sons, that sentiment is beginning to prevail.

"We are Brazilians. We have to support our national team," says musician Daniel Pilatti, 30, who's sitting in a Rio bar where World Cup matches are screened. "We have to be together all the time, both in hard times and good times."

Pilatti says he finds the foreign criticism of Neymar "a bit embarrassing," but warns that "Neymar will show all these critics that Brazilians are good at football."

The issue has a serious dimension, which is now the focus of much debate. By overreacting to fouls, Neymar is trying to win an advantage — a free kick, at the very least, but possibly the expulsion of an opposition player. No matter that this practice is as common among professional soccer players as fast cars and tattoos: It is, unarguably, skulduggery.

Some of the reaction to his behavior reflects that. England's former captain Alan Shearer described the Brazilian as a "magnificent player" but condemned his conduct as "absolutely pathetic."

Mexico's coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, accused Neymar of setting a bad example for children, adding that soccer is supposed to be "a manly game," and is "not for clowning around."

Inconveniently, from the Brazilians' viewpoint, a 2012 video has surfaced in which their own coach, Tite, makes a similar criticism of the player.

Brazilians are now pushing back. They point out that, because he is a soccer genius — and thus, a massive threat to any opposing team — Neymar is the constant target of violent, and possibly injurious, tackles.

During the 2014 World Cup hosted by Brazil, Neymar missed the semifinals after a heavy foul left him with a back injury. In this year's contest in Russia, he has reportedly been one of the most fouled players.

Several former national players have come to his defense. Neymar's conduct is "a kind of self-defense," Pepe, who played in the 1950s and 1960s, told Estadão newspaper.

On Tuesday, the day after Neymar's antics against Mexico, England played and defeated Colombia. One English player, Harry Maguire, took a "dive" in the penalty area — pretending to have been fouled, when he hadn't. Another was caught on camera dramatically clutching his forehead after being knocked on the chin.

Smarting from the Neymar onslaught, some Brazilians went on the counterattack.

What about "the theatrical and pathetic performance of English players?" asked Elena Landau, a Brazilian lawyer, in one of many Twitter comments on the issue.

Normally, Brazilians seem to enjoy poking gentle fun at their own soccer stars — especially over their obsession with hairstyling. Not so long ago, people in Rio were swapping a spoof video online in which a Brazilian player crashes to the ground, apparently horribly injured. A medic races on and combs the player's hair, bringing about an instant recovery.

Now, as the World Cup gets to the truly serious stage, the mood has changed.

Woe betide anyone, these days, who walks in a bar full of Neymar-lovers and starts making fun of the theatrical man whose shirt they're wearing.

At least — for now. The passions stirred up by soccer in Brazil are bigger than any individual.

"Neymar is our guy if he wins for us," Paulo Passos, sports editor of Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, told NPR.

"If he loses with the team, I don't think anyone here will try to protect him from foreign critics!"

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