Faking a foul in soccer and supporting a political liar may seem disconnected. But their intersection in Neymar is no coincidence.

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Next week, all eyes in the soccer-loving world turn to Europe as the world’s top teams battle for the most coveted club trophy on the planet. The knock-out stage of the European Champions League gets underway, and I, for one, can’t wait to watch.

I’m looking forward to the big-name clubs—Real Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), and others—testing their mettle against one another and the rest of the best from across the continent. Enough with Bayern Munich beating up on under-resourced German teams and winning their domestic league for the millionth straight year. Make them fight someone their own size!

But there’s something about the clashes of titans that I’m dreading: more scenes of Neymar, the swift, ultra-talented Paris forward, hurling his body to the grass and writhing in pain as if mortally wounded after the slightest or non-existent touch from a defender. It’s known in soccer parlance as diving, simulation, or flopping, and the point is to lure the referee into awarding the diver’s team a valuable, potentially game-changing penalty kick or free kick.

Making it worse is the knowledge that Neymar, a Brazilian, is a staunch supporter of ex-President Bolsonaro—“The values that he represents, they are the same as mine,” Neymar declared last fall—and an avatar for the Bolsonaro/Trump/MAGA mentality on the pitch.

Especially the grievance and resentment part.

Diving is lying

Sports often evoke and frame the issues that stir the waters in politics, and life. So it is with Neymar. He is a case study in the pernicious problem of grievance and resentment and the behavior to which they lead.

Neymar is a staunch supporter of, and avatar for, the Bolsonaro/Trump/MAGA mentality on the pitch. Especially the grievance and resentment part.

Disgust with Neymar’s over-the-top acting peaked during the 2018 World Cup. His dives, exaggerated rolling, and scrunched-up pain faces seemed like parody and became the stuff of memes.

Interest spiked again this past December when Neymar got his just deserts in PSG’s French league game against Strasbourg. He received a red card—expulsion from the game—for a particularly embarrassing and shameless act of simulation. (For the record, it was a second yellow card, not a straight-up red, but that technicality does not diminish the gratification of the anti-Neymar brigade.) Slow-motion replays showed the defender did not even touch Neymar before the Brazilian flung his body to ground.

YouTube video

One soccer website called the red card “every Neymar hater’s dream come true.” They were right.

It’s easy to explain why fans like me found it so delightful when that French referee reached into his pocket and flashed the red card. In sports as in life, we hate cheating. We want cheaters exposed and punished. We know that diving is an ugly mark on the “beautiful game.” It’s a form of lying, essentially, of using one’s actions to falsely declare “I just got brutally fouled” in pursuit of an unmerited reward, paid for by an innocent opponent.

The more interesting and complex issue is why those who dive in soccer, or spread lies and foment grievance-based conflict in public life, do it—and why they feel they are justified.

Grievance-based justification

In Neymar’s case, the excuse-making can be found on numerous soccer forums. He has plenty of defenders. The story goes like this: With his exceptional speed, talent, and ball-dribbling wizardry, Neymar poses a lethal threat for over-matched defenders. So, they constantly tug and hack at him with their hands and feet, resorting to barely legal and extra-legal contact to minimize the damage he can wreak.

And—key part here—the referees let them get away with it, as the story goes, leaving Neymar with no choice but to dramatize the contact to make it visible and force the ref’s hand—to coax fairer officiating of the game, in his view, and to protect himself from injury.

Kernel of truth? Probably. And truth be told, Neymar is hardly the only professional soccer player who feels it necessary to go to ground to frame the issue when they feel they’ve been fouled. The problem with Neymar, though, is the frequency of his simulation, and the often-embarrassing execution of his dives.

Perhaps the Paris winger should take acting classes. As every thespian knows, you lose your audience when you overdo it.

See also: Thinking about flopping

And as every student of life knows, when you start nursing your grievances and resentments a little too hard—when you start spending too much time in a place of “Why am I always treated so unfairly?”—you find justification for the worst forms of behavior: lying, scapegoating, lashing out.

Sound like any former presidents you know?

Politics of grievance and resentment

When poor, oppressed people resent social injustices and the state of their lives, it’s understandable. Sympathy comes hard, however, when it’s a lavishly-compensated and brilliantly-successful soccer player who’s laying on the “woe is me” shtick. Especially when he is juxtaposed with a teammate like Lionel Messi who is equally talented and also the target of aggressive defending—and is quite the opposite of Neymar when comes to diving.

Sympathy is even harder to muster when the “victim” is a wealthy and powerful politician whose politics favor those who have the most and land hardest on those with the least.

Like Bolsonaro, the object of Neymar’s loyalty. Like Trump.

As a trio of scholars argue in this paper, Bolsonaro “activated latent, previously unexploited grievances in the electorate” and “fomented conflict across lines of gender, race, and religion” to fuel his drive for the presidency. As president, when he and his administration were rightly criticized for deforestation of the Amazon, Bolsonaro declared, “We are victims of one of the most brutal disinformation campaigns about the Amazon.” 

Poor Bolsonaro.

As for Trump, a permanent “red card” is warranted for the too-many-to-count times he has leveraged grievance and for his constant, shameless use of resentment to justify the most unconscionable behavior. Do not forget how he excused the violent attack on the Capitol two years ago: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

I’m sure many other followers of politics and world football responded the same way I did when Neymar declared his loyalty to Bolsonaro: Of course he supports Bolsonaro. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn he’s a fan of Trump, too. The three seem to have a lot in common.

Neymar can have and hold the politics he wants, but he has no right to damage an excellent sport with his cynical tactics. Thankfully, the referees have the remedies in their pockets, and they should not hesitate to wield them when a barely-touched Neymar crumples to the turf as if shot:

Pull out a card. The red one if necessary.

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Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...