By Andrew Downie
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Brazil's steady progress into the quarter-finals of the World Cup has marked them out as one of the favourites, but the title talk has been drowned out in much of the world by a debate over Neymar's play acting.
Neymar turned in his best performance of the tournament so far against Mexico on Monday, scoring one goal and setting up the other in their 2-0 win.
However, the chat online and in the media has focussed not only on his football but on his diving and in particular one moment in the 72nd minute when he writhed about after Mexican Miguel Layun appeared to step on his ankle.
The incident was clearly meant to wind Neymar up, and Layun was lucky to escape punishment.
But he didn't look to have put pressure on Neymar's leg, and the player's delayed and exaggerated response was the subject of heated debate, especially coming after similarly petulant displays in earlier matches.
Outside Brazil, fans and former players condemned the Paris St Germain player, with Denmark's Peter Schmeichel calling his antics "disgraceful," former England player Alan Shearer tweeting "STOP IT. We are fed up of it," and Frenchman Eric Cantona, in one thinly veiled reference, saying "No more cheating. No more crocodile tears. No more Narcissism. Let us love Brasil like we used to love to."
Even fans who appreciate Neymar's unquestionable brilliance have been turned off by the antics of a player who too often comes across as spoilt and immature.
After he dived in a bid to win a penalty against Costa Rica in Brazil's second match, Tostao, a striker in the legendary 1970 World Cup-winning side, encouraged coach Tite to have a heart-to-heart with the player and "demand that he stop with the fits, the complaining, the arguing and the faking."
The opprobrium heaped on the 26-year old has prompted a counter-reaction from fans, who, with some justification, believe Neymar is more sinned against than sinner.
He has been fouled 23 times so far in the tournament, more than Uruguayan duo Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani combined.
The onus in football should be on protecting the ball players, many fans argue, irregardless of the response.
"Neymar exaggerates when he is fouled," Guga Chacra, a well-known Brazilian columnist and international affairs analyst wrote on twitter.
"But the attacks on him by the foreign media and foreign fans frightens me. It’s an irrational hatred. They criticise Neymar more than the players who hunt him down over 90 minutes."
(Reporting by Andrew Downie; Editing by Hugh Lawson)