SAMARA, Russia — Flaunting his flair and his finishing touch wasn’t enough. Neymar put his theatrics on show, too.
What became clear in Brazil’s 2-0 victory over Mexico on Monday is that the wild side of the striker’s character is going nowhere at this year’s World Cup. And neither is Brazil.
“I don’t much care for criticism,” Neymar said, “not even for praise.”
With a goal and an assist, Neymar propelled Brazil into the quarterfinals of a tournament it has won five times. He also extended his platform to show the world he is as good — or better — than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Although Neymar has scored only two goals in four games in Russia, he did enter the World Cup after spending three months recovering from a broken right foot. And it was the right foot that helped to break through Mexico’s stern resistance in Samara.
After releasing Willian with a back-heel, Neymar raced into the penalty area and slid to tap his teammate’s return cross into the net.
While his scoring is so often the focus, Neymar also creates goals for his teammates. A toe-poked attempt to beat Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in the 88th minute was diverted into the path of Robert Firmino, who scored with a tap-in just like Neymar did. The world’s most expensive player has 11 goals and nine assists in his last 19 games for Brazil.
But before setting up the second goal it looked like Neymar’s game — or even his World Cup — could be over with 20 minutes to go. It turned out to be pure histrionics. Writhing in agony after his right ankle was stepped on by Miguel Layun, Neymar managed to get back on his feet. But not before trying to step on Layun.
Both escaped punishment, but the judgment elsewhere was less forgiving, with Neymar asked after the match if he was a diva trying to draw fouls.
“I think it’s more an attempt to undermine me than anything else,” Neymar responded.
The five-time World Cup champions will next face Belgium in the quarterfinals on Friday in Kazan. Brazil has reached that stage at every World Cup since 1994.
Mexico has now lost in the round of 16 at every tournament over the same period of time, extending its wait for the “quinto partido” — or fifth game — for at least another four years. The last time Mexico reached the quarterfinals was when the country hosted the tournament in 1986.
This year’s World Cup had started so promisingly for Mexico. The team opened with a win over Germany, setting the defending champions on the path to an early exit. They caused problems for Brazil, too, initially.
But they couldn’t find a way to stop Neymar.
“He’s very agile. He’s very fast,” Brazil coach Tite said. “Is it wrong to feign, to provoke the players in the last third? It’s not a sin.”
Neymar’s dispute with Layun unfolded as the Mexico substitute tried to recover the ball. In a delayed reaction, Neymar made the most of Layun stepping on his ankle, rolling around with his hand covering his eyes.
The rapid recovery seemed miraculous.
“We wasted a lot of time because of one single player,” Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio said, without naming Neymar. “I think this is a real shame for football, especially for kids who are watching because this has to be a sport of virility, of determination, a man’s sport, like other games, and not a charade.”
During the win over Costa Rica in the group stage, Neymar tried to win a penalty by flopping to the ground in the area. A video review reversed the decision to award a penalty kick and Neymar’s frustrations a few minutes later led to a yellow card.
Tite also played a big role in the victory over Mexico, deciding to replace Philippe Coutinho with Firmino. Fresh among tiring legs, Firmino was able to evade the defense to get in the right place to score the second goal.
Neymar, though, still led the celebrations, charging toward the corner flag. Tite came to join him.
With Germany, Argentina and Spain among the contenders already eliminated, Brazil’s hopes of a sixth World Cup title have received an extra lift.
QUOTABLE: “Being able to play at such a level against a team like Brazil really shows that Mexico is a good team,” Osorio said. “We were maybe not very efficient and we didn’t have that extra quality that they had coming to our goal.”
NEXT FOR BRAZIL: After a return to its training base in Sochi, Brazil heads back north to Kazan for Friday’s quarterfinal match.
Belgium 3, Japan 2
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia — Jan Vertonghen started Belgium’s comeback with a crazy, looping header and Nacer Chaldi capped it by finishing off a 10-second, end-to-end attack in the final moments.
It added up to a 3-2 victory over Japan on Monday that gave the Belgians a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals for the second straight tournament.
With Belgium trailing 2-0, Vertonghen scored with a header in the 69th minute that appeared to be a cross but somehow dropped in under the bar. Substitute Marouane Fellaini headed in another from Eden Hazard’s cross in the 74th.
Chaldi, who came on as a substitute in the 65th, decided it with virtually the last kick of the game in the fourth minute of injury time.
Belgium goalkeeper Thibault Courtois grabbed a corner kick and rolled the ball to Kevin De Bruyne, who dribbled to the top of the center circle and passed to Thomas Meunier on the right. Meunier one-timed the ball across the area and Romelu Lukaku let it roll by for Chaldi to tap in with his left foot from 7 yards.
Belgium is the first team to overturn a two-goal deficit in a World Cup knockout match since West Germany beat England in extra time at the 1970 tournament. The last team do it in regulation was when Portugal beat North Korea in the 1966 quarterfinals.
“It’s a test of character. It’s a test of the team,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said. “You have to see how the substitutes react, how the whole team reacts.”
Belgium will next face five-time champion Brazil in the quarterfinals on Friday in Kazan.
Japan led through early second-half goals by Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui, but they couldn’t hold on.
“When we were up 2-0, I really wanted to score another goal and we did have opportunities,” Japan coach Akira Nishino said. “We were to some extent controlling the game, but Belgium upped their game when they had to.”
What was expected to be a mismatch ended up being a classic, partly because of Martinez’s decisions to send on Fellaini and Chadli as substitutes in the 65th minute.
“In football, sometimes you want to be perfect,” Martinez said. “In the World Cup and especially in the knockout stage, it’s about getting through.”
Belgium, which narrowly avoided joining Germany, Argentina, Spain and Portugal as big-name eliminations, won all three of its group matches and scored a tournament-leading nine goals at that stage.
Japan narrowly scraped through, advancing ahead of Senegal because it had fewer yellow cards.
The Japanese have now lost in the round of 16 three times without ever reaching the quarterfinals.
EMOTIONAL END: Four Japanese players fell on their knees in despair after the final whistle. Hiroki Sakai and Gen Shoji were in tears.