After his latest injury, Neymar promised that he would return better than ever — a claim now boosted by apparently successful but season-ending surgery on his ankle on Friday. But his future has more questions than answers, and his past is full of controversy. So what next for the 31-year-old Brazilian? And how has he become one of the most divisive figures in the modern game?
It may not be a popular view, but it certainly can be argued that there was some nobility in his decision to leave Barcelona and join Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. There was no animosity between him and Lionel Messi, the main star back then at the Catalan club — the hug between them at the end of the 2021 Copa America deserves to be one of the game’s iconic images.
But Neymar thought that the time had come to head his own project, to be the symbol of a club that was going to take the European game by storm. Almost six years later, it is clear that things have not worked out as he intended. PSG’s star-based project seems inherently flawed. It has seen off a number of top quality coaches, and led to an impression that it might have been better for the club to follow a more organic, locally-based model making greater use of the profusion of talent in France. This point may be underlined by the rise of Kylian Mbappe, who has overtaken Neymar as the most important player in the squad.
So where will Neymar fit in on his return? Some don’t even think that he fits in at the moment. In an interview with RMC Sports radio, former France centre-forward Christophe Dugarry declared himself “very happy for PSG that Neymar is injured. I think it’s an incredible chance for [coach Christophe] Galtier. At some point he would need the courage to drop Neymar, it was the only solution.”
If there is no longer a place for him at PSG, then where might he go? He is under contract until 2027, and very few clubs could afford his wage bill, let alone the transfer fee. And most of those are in the Premier League — which has never looked like his perfect destination. In hindsight, he perhaps underestimated the physicality of the French league — and English football operates at an even higher level of intensity, with added deep lying dislike of diving.
Neymar’s interpretation of the rules of the game would come under close scrutiny. For someone usually very popular with his teammates — for Brazil at least — it is striking just how much Neymar gets under the skin of some former players. Dugarry, for example, described him as “unbearable,” and Marco Van Basten, one of the all-time great strikers, went further.
“Neymar is a real cry baby,” Van Basten told Dutch outlet Ziggo Sport last October. “He is constantly provoking. In one second he is committing a foul and in the next he’s playing the victim. No one has permission to touch him. He’s a dirty and unpleasant player.”
What makes Van Basten’s remarks especially poignant is that the Dutch master had his career interrupted by ankle injuries — the very problem that Neymar keeps running into. Van Basten, though, blames medical errors for his tribulations. He and many of his generation look upon Neymar as someone who is trying to redefine football as a non-contact sport. Neymar is a product of his time and of his environment.
The greatest producer of talent in the history of the game has been the Brazilian street — the informal football played at all hours on the road, in the park, in any available space. But Neymar is too young to have caught this in its heyday. Many of these spaces have been eaten up by urban expansion. Many of those spaces that remain have been rendered too dangerous by increasing urban violence.
The solution has been to take the kids indoors to the safer, more sanitised environment of futsal. Informal street football usually has no referee. The skinny talented player soon has to develop survival skills. He has to learn when to let go of the ball and when — close enough to goal to make it worthwhile — to unleash the dribble.
But Neymar learned to defend himself in futsal by using the referee, by showing the referee that he was being fouled. Some of his most frustrating performances are when he drops deep and seems to encourage fouls that win pointless free kicks. Whatever Van Basten thinks, there is little doubt that on the field he is far more sinned against than sinning. But that is the way that things have been for every skilful player since the game began, and today’s talent gets far more protection than anyone who played football before the crackdown on the tackle from behind in the early 1990s.
In earlier times, Neymar would have had to put up with far more brutal treatment. That magnificent strike against Croatia in the quarterfinal of the World Cup means that Neymar has scored as many goals as Pele for the Brazil national team. And yet many will still judge his career as a disappointment. The expectations were always too high.
For a while Brazilians regarded the Ballon D’Or award as a birthright, one which after a dry spell Neymar be able recapture for his country. Chasing the award given to the world’s best player may have been one of his motives for joining PSG. Surely the time has come to remove that dream as a priority.
If the award does come, then rather than some individual quest, let it be for work carried out in a collective context. Because these recurring ankle injuries will surely take a toll, especially on a player already into his thirties. It might be harder to conjure up that vital extra gear of acceleration speed that carries him away from his marker.
But that shift doesn’t need to transform Neymar into a has been. He really is a remarkable talent, with great ability in both feet and extraordinary speed to size up the situation. If he moves slower, he can still make the ball move quicker, with more precision and intelligence, than the vast majority of top class performers. Can he go through this process of adaptation? Is the boy prince able to transform himself into the wise old owl? Can he be reborn as the senior statesman?
All of the stages in his career have been fascinating, and this next one — wherever it takes place — will add some gripping new episodes to the soap opera.