At the end of Barcelona’s dizzying 6-1 win against Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, Lionel Messi stood with his fist held up high, thronged by his mesmerized followers, a sort of miniature Robin Hood taking from the Parisiens and giving to the Catalans.
And as much as the Argentine magician would be the face for arguably the greatest comeback in the history of the competition, it was Neymar who had brought about this win.
A spell of untamed Neymargeddon close to the end of the tie not only unsettled PSG’s nerves, but ultimately rendered them a useless power-hungry bottle job. The pressures of being a European elite would not rest on their shoulders, unfit to handle the responsibilities that came with such status.
In Barcelona’s Champions League triumph in 2015, Neymar played a leading role in what would be his only European medal to date. The conclusion to that 3-1 win against Juventus marked the end of a period of unprecedented glory for the club, which includes the best season in the MSN era, with Messi and Luis Suarez playing their part in an exhilarating trio that could so easily be the best we’ve seen in the modern game.
Apart from Neymar’s questionable arrival in Paris in the summer of 2017, this was a time when the Brazilian’s own drunken brilliance could not be ignored, fixed at the forefront of our fanfare and laying down the foundations for world domination once Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo faded into the shadows.
And as we wait for those foundations to become more than just an idea, Neymar was supposed to return to the spotlight when Brazil begin their Copa America campaign against Bolivia in under two weeks.
At a time when his stock is as low as it’s ever been, another injury has hampered his chances of recovering a career that has somewhat stagnated.
If it wasn’t for the rape allegations put against him recently – which have since been proven false – most people wouldn’t have noticed the Brazilian if he was walking down the street to go and buy a carton of milk from the local store.
Since the disappointment of the World Cup in Russia, his footballing career has existed in fits and starts, a superstar who started the season like a house on fire, but lost his momentum due to injury.
Ligue 1’s twitchy training grounds breathed a sigh of relief, taking turns to bash him in their Neymar Anonymous meetings whilst watching replays of past performances on the TV.
Bad Neymar. Don’t roll around and whine like a spoilt toddler. Trackback, tackle, help your full-back! Rabonas? Really? When you’re 6-0 up?
But to focus on these is to miss the point of what Neymar is all about – for all his annoying tit-bits and individualism, he is a player who has never been phased by what we have to say about him.
He can spend hours playing Call of Duty whilst streaming his progress on Twitch. He takes time to meet up with celebrities such as Will Smith with the usual endearing smile and hoarse laugh, like a man recovering from a long night on the town.
— F1 News (@f1_notizie) May 13, 2019
In Ligue 1, Neymar is the ultimate showman, rainbow flicking and dancing his way through annoyed, married men cast as defenders in the Brazilian’s own full-length, flashy biopic. Punching fans at the French Cup final, or lambasting VAR decisions made against his team in their loss to Manchester United aren’t moments we want to remember him for, but maybe it shouldn’t matter.
These antics all add to Neymar’s carefree, individualistic persona, an adrenalin-filled Parisien partnership made to bring glory to all parties involved.
But these recurring injuries are now starting to stick out like a sore thumb, distracting us from the twinkle toes and moments of magic that got us excited about his mercurial talent in the first place. His flame has dimmed somewhat, a superstar drifting from potential Ballon d’Or winner to one-trick marketing tool.
He’s still good at what he’s primarily in Paris for. In an injury-hit season, he has been able to amass 15 goals and seven assists in 17 games. In his maiden voyage into French territory, also hampered by injury, he had 19 goals and 13 assists in 20 games. It’s safe to say that, given an injury-free run of 38 games in a league such as Ligue 1, Neymar could record mindboggling numbers that could propel him to Ballon d’Or supremacy once again, almost unopposed.
And it’s not crazy to think that he can’t bring PSG’s fixation with European recognition to life. In last season’s Champions League group stage encounter against Liverpool at the Parc des Princes, Neymar gave us a stellar performance of perfectly balanced defence and attack, a controlled but thrillingly enjoyable display that seemed to be the catalyst for Neymar 2.0.
Thomas Tuchel would have learnt some hard truths about leaving the individualistic attitude of his team to fester after the reverse game at Anfield, and to bring out the best defensive side of Neymar – to show him that he can still pirouette and fascinate for all to admire – might be an easier proposition going forward.
He is 27 now, an age synonymous with the old adage that players are at their peak, the opportune time to wield their most impressive catalogue of footballing prowess at the highest level.
He won’t care much about that, but the Copa America presented a chance for him to reignite a fidgety period of his career. The great entertainer of our generation will know that he has a lot of work to do behind the scenes to rid himself of the injuries that are hampering his progress.