Neymar’s future at PSG and Brazil is now cloudy after injury

Following his latest injury, Neymar has vowed to come back better than ever – a claim now reinforced by an apparently successful but season-ending ankle operation on Friday. But his future has more questions than answers, and his past is full of controversy. What’s next for the 31-year-old Brazilian? And how did he become one of the most controversial characters in the modern game?

It may not be a popular view, but it can certainly be argued that there was a certain nobility in his decision to leave Barcelona and join Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. There was no animosity between him and Lionel Messi, the then star of the Catalan club – their hug at the end of the 2021 Copa America deserves to be called one of the game’s iconic images.

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But Neymar thought it was time to spearhead his own project to become the symbol of a club that would take European competitions by storm. Almost six years later, it is clear that things did not turn out the way he intended. PSG’s all-star design seems inherently flawed. This deprived many top-class coaches and gave the impression that the club would be better off following a more organic, local model, taking more advantage of France’s abundance of talent. This point can be underlined by the rise of Kylian Mbappe, who overtook Neymar as the team’s most important player.

So where will Neymar find his place when he returns? Some don’t even think it fits right now. In an interview with RMC Sports radio, former French centre-forward Christophe Dugarry said he was “very happy about Neymar’s injury for PSG. I think it’s an amazing opportunity for [coach Christophe] Galtier. At some point he will need the courage to drop Neymar, that was the only solution.

If there is no place for him at PSG, where can he go? His contract runs until 2027 and very few clubs can afford his salaries, let alone transfer fees. And most of them play in the Premier League, which never looked like his ideal destination. In retrospect, he may have underestimated the physicality of the French league – and English football operates at an even higher level of intensity, with a deep aversion to diving.

Neymar’s interpretation of the rules of the game will be thoroughly investigated. For someone who is usually very popular with his teammates – at least for Brazil – it is striking how much Neymar got under the skin of some former players. For example, Dugarry described him as “intolerable”, and Marco Van Basten, one of the greatest strikers of all time, went further.

“Neymar is a real weeper,” Van Basten told Dutch Outlet Ziggo Sports last october. “He’s constantly provoking. One second he commits a foul and the next he’s playing the victim. Nobody has the right to touch him. He’s a dirty and unpleasant player.”

What makes Van Basten’s remarks particularly poignant is that the Dutch champion’s career was cut short by ankle injuries – the exact same problem Neymar is dealing with. However, Van Basten blames medical errors for his torments. He and many of his generation see Neymar as someone who is trying to redefine football as a non-contact sport. Neymar is a product of his times and environment.

The greatest creator of talent in the history of football was the Brazilian street – informal football played at any time on the road, in the park, in every available space. But Neymar is too young to capture it in his heyday. Many of these spaces have been destroyed by urban expansion. Many of the spaces that remain have become too dangerous as a result of increasing urban violence.

The solution was to take the children to safer, more sanitized futsal environments. Informal street football usually has no referee. A skinny, talented player soon needs to develop survival skills. He needs to learn when to release the ball and when – close enough to the goal to make it worthwhile – to release the dribble.

But Neymar learned to defend in futsal by using the referee by showing the referee that he was fouled. Some of his most frustrating performances are when he falls deep and seems to encourage fouls that win pointless free kicks. No matter what Van Basten thinks, there is no doubt that he commits far more sins than he sins on the pitch. But that’s been the case with every talented player since the beginning of the game, and today’s talents have far better protection than anyone who played football before the tackle tackle from behind in the early 1990s.

Previously, Neymar would have had to endure much more brutal treatment. That great goal against Croatia in the quarter-finals of the World Cup means Neymar has scored as many goals as Pele for Brazil. And yet many will still judge his career as a disappointment. Expectations have always been too high.

For a while, Brazilians considered the Ballon d’Or a birthright that Neymar would be able to reclaim for his country after a period of drought. The pursuit of the award given to the best player in the world may have been one of the motives for moving to PSG. Surely it’s time to remove this dream as a priority.

If the reward comes, then instead of some individual mission, let it be for work done in a collective context. Because these repetitive ankle injuries are sure to take their toll, especially for a player in their 30s. It can be harder to conjure up that necessary extra acceleration gear that takes it away from the marker.

But this change need not turn Neymar into an ex. He really is an extraordinary talent, with great ability in both feet and extraordinary quickness of judgment. If he moves slower, he can still make the ball move faster, with more precision and intelligence than the vast majority of top performers. Can it go through this adaptation process? Can the little prince turn into a wise old owl? Can he be reborn as an elder statesman?

All stages of his career have been fascinating, and this next one – wherever it takes place – will add some gripping new episodes to the soap opera.

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