Neymar is perhaps the definitive modern sports star. In a time of polarized opinions, the Brazilian divides fan more than anyone else. In an age of constant speculation, no one’s future is discussed with greater fervor. In an era of enormous transfer fees, the PSG star’s remains by far the biggest. And, with the financial effects of coronavirus, it could do for some time.
Perversely, the footballing brilliance that is the root cause of all that attention is now often overlooked. But over the next month, one of the greatest talents of his generation will have the perfect opportunity to get people talking about the thing that truly matters — his soccer — as his PSG team go in search of three trophies, including the Champions League.
Neymar inevitably attracts disdainful glances from traditionalists. His on-pitch theatrics can border on pantomime; all pirouettes and quizzical looks to the referee as he suggests with his eyes and upturned palms that his aggressors should be put in the book. Off the pitch, his existence resembles a poorly-organized circus more than the life of a 28-year-old man, with Neymar as the lion, his father as ringmaster — whip in hand — and a ramshackle assortment of trapeze artists and clowns clinging on around the edges.
Yet look at him with a football at his feet and it is still truly magical. There is perhaps no other soccer player alive who moves with the same balletic grace or who has such effortless influence over the ball’s movements. And it is not just aesthetically pleasing; he is as lethal as anyone. In 57 career Champions League games, he has 57 goals or assists. Just taking his time at PSG, he has 108 goal contributions in 80 games, three French league titles, one cup, one league cup, and a French super cup.
His spell at PSG, despite the goals, assists, and silverware, is still defined far more by what he has not done that what he has, by games that he has not played in – Real Madrid in 2018, Manchester United in 2019 – and, of course, the collective and individual accolades he has not claimed. Missing those games was pure bad luck, a case of getting injured at the wrong time, but that seems to have done little to lessen the impact on his reputation.
In the last couple of weeks, there have been repeated reports that a move back to Barcelona remains on the cards, however unlikely that seems in reality. But that the rumors of a transfer persist, even in times of reduced spending power, is a sign of the unshakable feeling of discomfort in the relationship between Neymar and Les Parisiens.
Given that he moved to PSG partly to escape the shadow of Messi and give himself a better chance of winning the Ballon D’Or, it would be ironic if Neymar won the Champions League in the one year where the prize will not be awarded. Still, he will be going all out to win the competition, for the collective glory but also because it would considerably alter perceptions of him as an individual. The coming month is Neymar’s chance to add a new sheen to his legacy in the French capital, to make the negative narrative slightly more favorable.
Before the Champions League in August comes Friday’s Coupe de France final against Saint-Etienne and the Coupe de la Ligue final against Lyon on July 31. PSG is an odds-on for the first title and favorite for the second. As well as the silverware up for grabs, these two games will offer a glimpse of how Neymar and his colleagues are really progressing in their preparations for the big one, the Champions League quarter-final against Atalanta on August 12.
Last week, Thomas Tuchel’s team took apart Le Havre 9-0 and Waasland-Beveren 7-0 in two friendlies, but the fragility of the opposition meant little could be read into either result or performance. In Tuesday’s final warm-up, PSG faced a sterner test in the shape of Scottish champion Celtic. Neymar and his fellow superstar Kylian Mbappé excelled in the 45 minutes they spent on the field together, with Neymar providing a beautifully weighted pass for the Frenchman to open the scoring before doubling the lead on 25 minutes.
Still, the two finals will be a whole different kind of test for a team that has not played a competitive fixture since March, when it beat Borussia Dortmund 2-0 to progress to the last eight of Europe’s elite competition. Since then, their Italian Champions League opposition has already played ten times and still has three more league fixtures to fulfill. In those ten games, Atalanta has continued its thrilling form from before the coronavirus crisis, winning eight, tying two, scoring 25, conceding ten and moving up to second place in Serie A.
As both underdogs and possibly the most exciting team in Europe, many neutrals will be cheering on Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta against the big, bad wolf PSG. And because of the additional match practice, one would imagine that the team from Bergamo will be sharper, fitter and more alert.
Neymar, then, will have a great responsibility on his shoulders; to lead by example, to do his defensive duties, to control the tempo of the game, and to prove, finally, that PSG investment in him was entirely in vain. If he can cope with that burden, the European final four beckons, and with it comes the opportunity for Neymar to turn our focus onto his soccer skills once again.