Late on during a tight and tense cup match between PSG and Rennes, Neymar—trying to wrangle a long punt and wind down the clock to protect his team’s 3-2 lead—was whistled for what he believed to be a soft foul on Rennes’s Hamari Traoré. To whittle away even more time, Neymar kicked away the ball before Rennes could grab it and quickly restart play. For this act of time wasting, the ref gave Neymar a yellow card. He responded by sarcastically applauding Traoré, and then jogged over and pulled this cheeky little joke:
As you can see a little bit in the video above, this stunt didn’t sit well with Rennes’s players. Something of a scrum ensued as the Rennes guys jawed at PSG’s players and both teams tried to separate Traoré from Neymar. Yet another instance of Neymar being Neymar and enraging opponents by doing so.
When asked about the controversy after the match, Neymar was already annoyed with the knowledge that his joke would turn into A Thing. From Marca, who translated his postgame remarks:
“Football is a little boring right now because we can’t do anything,” he said in the mixed zone.
“Everything is controversial. For example, I made a joke at the end by offering my hand and then pulling it away. It will cause controversy, when it’s the kind of thing I do with my friends. Why can’t I do it with opponents? It was a joke.”
Neymar is right. Yes, he was being kind of an ass to Traoré, and yes, his more typical late-game antics, where he’ll pull off elaborate backyard tricks that aren’t actually that useful in an actual match when his team is winning, or celebrate a goal with a dance routine, are undoubtedly meant to show up his opponents. In fact, part of Traoré’s and his teammates’ anger in the match in question probably stemmed from some of Neymar’s trickery not long before his fake-out move:
Even if Neymar intends to clown on his opponents with his play, who cares? Isn’t that part of what we’re here for—for great players to stunt on the other team when they can, for them to humiliate their lessers and delight the crowd with their superiority? Is anyone crying when LeBron reaches the hoop when wide open on a fast break, jumps into the air, cocks back his arm practically down to his hip, slams the ball through the hoop, and then ice-grills the other team’s bench for a few seconds? Since when is a dubious notion like feigned “respect” more important than entertainment or the desire to demonstrate why you’re the best?
And yet Neymar constantly gets shit for this. The Rennes player who responded to the Brazilian’s unnecessarily swaggy back-touch and sombrero flick was pretty much within his rights when he twisted Neymar to the ground to register his frustration at getting clowned on in a mostly harmless way. If someone intentionally makes a fool out of you then you do have the right to defend your honor with a shove or getting in the other player’s face, but that’s about it.
More regularly, though, salty players will charge straight into Neymar’s legs with their cleats up in much more dangerous challenges that should be policed better by referees but too often go unpunished. Flair players are constantly targeted with hard, dangerous fouls, and rarely get the protection they should. In Neymar’s case, oftentimes these overly physical reactions to his perfectly legal behaviors will then be justified by the angry and humiliated players, the other team’s fans, fellow ex-professionals, and even the media with claims that Neymar “provoked” a defender into, say, attempting to break Neymar’s leg because he committed the crime of being too good at dribbling. It’s a ridiculous notion, yet a popular one.
Regardless of what the haters think, though, Neymar says he in no way intends to change his ways in response to fragile egos. This is what he had to say about the tackles he received from Rennes players:
“They were stopping me with blows and I was playing football,” he said. “They provoked me, but I also know how to provoke, in my own way, with the ball and with my football. I’m not here to kick out, I don’t know how to do that. I defend myself with the ball.
“It won’t help if defenders provoke me because I will provoke even more. I know people will speak about the incident, but they should put themselves in my shoes. I am going to make my team win.”