(CNN)This was supposed to be the World Cup where the greats dazzled with a string of performances that would leave fans purring and have future generations uttering their names for years to come.
Unfortunately for Brazil’s Neymar his displays are still being talked about — though probably not in the way the world’s most expensive player would have wished.
Four years ago the Paris Saint-Germain $255 million star missed Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 semifinal defeat by Germany through injury. Russia 2018 was supposed to be his time, even if he had missed a chunk of the 2017/2018 season due to a foot injury.
“In 2014 Brazil tried to use the emotion of Neymar’s injury to beat Germany (lost 7-1),” tweeted British journalist Paul Hayward after Brazil was knocked out of Russia 2018 by Belgium. “In 2018 it was all about his rushed comeback from injury and getting the ball to him. A great country blinded by a brand.”
If the 26-year-old Brazilian did not set the World Cup alight, neither did he perform terribly. Yet his theatrics have garnered criticism and now the Brazilian’s playacting in Russia has made him the butt of a joke that is sweeping the internet.
The former Barcelona forward described Brazil’s World Cup exit as the “saddest day of my career,” though that was before the #neymarchallenge went viral on social media over the weekend, making fun at his tendency to feign injury.
Mocked from South Africa to Mexico, by KFC and Cantona
One post of children taking part in a football summer camp falling down in unison has been retweeted over 10,000 times on Twitter, while even NHL mascot SJ Sharkie has impersonated PSG’s star man who, according to some reports, could be on his way to Real Madrid this summer.
Mexico’s Club Tijuana introduced a half-time challenge for fans where they were required to roll half the length of the pitch. A video of the challenge, posted by Claudia Rodriguez, has already been viewed over 100,000 times on Twitter.
In 360 minutes of football in Russia, Neymar spent 14 minutes on the floor, according to Swiss broadcaster RTS. It was time mainly spent rolling around in apparent agony before getting back on his feet again to continue with the dribbles, flicks and no-look passes.
Fast food chain KFC mocked the Brazilian for his exaggerated rolls in an advert in South Africa featuring a footballer who rolls from a pitch to a KFC chain with the tag line “make a meal of it.”
Even Portugal’s 911 service, the National Institute of Medical Emergency (INEM), got in on the act, using a picture of Neymar splayed on the ground as part of its new campaign which reads: “75.8% of calls to 112 are also not emergencies.”
Former Manchester United forward Eric Cantona featured in a comical video where he appeared on screen carrying a yellow suitcase before spinning it on a table, saying: “This is my new luggage: I call it Neymar. Because of the color, but mainly because of this — you barely touch it and it turns round and round for hours.”
Neymar rolled over so many times in the group stage against Switzerland that numerous videos were produced of the Brazilian rolling along the ground in incongruous settings — motorways, pavements, an airport carousel.
One of Neymar’s lowest moments came in the group stage against Costa Rica when the referee initially awarded Brazil a penalty for a foul on the player before the decision was overturned once VAR showed the PSG forward had thrown himself to the ground after the slightest of touches from Costa Rica defender Giancarlo Gonzalez.
‘He is not an actor’
Brazil coach Tite defended his star man in Russia, saying: “If you look, you will see how much he has been participating collectively — taking back the ball, taking up space. The sense of teamwork, that is the best virtue. All the rest, it is up to you.”
Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku also spoke up for the Brazilian: “For me, he is not an actor. The players that play against him are tough. He has qualities that are out of the ordinary.”
There is a case for the defense. Neymar suffered 26 fouls in five World Cup matches and was tackled 14 times.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi, by comparison, was fouled 15 times and tackled 10 times, while Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo was fouled 14 times and tackled 13 times. Both Ronaldo and Messi played one fewer match than Neymar.
No player has so far made more attempts on goal than Neymar (27) in Russia, while no team has yet attacked more than the Brazilians (292 attacks) with their star player at the center of the Brazilians’ attacking threat.
He also covered a distance of 47.3 kilometers — 22.8km in possession — scored twice, made one assist and competed 23 dribbles into the penalty area.
In four matches, Messi covered a distance of 31.6km, scoring once, assisting twice and completed seven dribbles into the penalty area.
But in an online poll in Globoesporte, 56% of fans rated Neymar’s World Cup as unsatisfactory with just 4% believing the forward produced his best football in Russia.
Former Real Madrid player, coach and sporting director Jorge Valdano also suggested that the Spanish club would be better off signing Kylian Mbappe, who also plays for PSG, rather than Neymar.
“Neymar would have plenty of value in terms of both marketing and football,” Valdano told Onda Cero.
“I think Madrid have interest in him, but I do not know about any offers or any potential bids but it would be nearly impossible to sign a player who can sell a lot like him.
“I would prefer if they go for Mbappe as he would be a long-term investment because he is six years younger and is already at the top level.”
The World Cup of the collective
Leading up to Russia 2018 the questions being asked revolved around the three players regarded as the best on the planet: Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar.
Would Messi crown a glorious career by leading Argentina to football’s biggest prize? Could Ronaldo outshine his rival of 10 years, finally allowing supporters to answer the unending question of who is the best — Messi or Ronaldo? Or would the spotlight shine brightest on Neymar, the man with the expectations of 207 million Brazilians on his shoulders?
With the semifinals looming, the answers to those questions can already be answered with an emphatic no because Russia 2018 has been a tournament where the collective has outshone any individual.
England has progressed to its first semifinal in 28 years despite not possessing the talent of generations past and Croatia has battled through two penalty shootouts to set up a last-four tie against the English on Wednesday, grinding it out even though they have the ability to play with grace.
Teenager Mbappe has starred for the French, drawing comparisons with celebrated compatriot Thierry Henry, but Les Bleus is a team of many talents — notably Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann — who work diligently when it matters.