Neymar’s future at PSG and Brazil — and as an elite playmaker — is now cloudy

After his latest injury, Neymar vowed he’d be back better than ever, a claim now bolstered by an apparently successful but season-ending ankle surgery on Friday. But there are more questions than answers in his future, and the past is full of contradictions. So what’s next for the 31-year-old Brazilian? And how did he become one of the most controversial figures in the modern game?

It may be an unpopular opinion, 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. Between him and Lionel Messi, the main star of the time, there was no enmity. the Catalan club – the hug between them at the end of the 2021 Copa América deserves to be one of the iconic images of the game.

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But Neymar thought it was time to lead his own project, to become the symbol of a club that was about to take the European game by storm. Almost six years later, it becomes clear that things did not go as he planned. PSG’s star project seems inherently flawed. This led to the sacking of a number of high-profile managers and created the impression that the club might be better off following a more organic, local model that takes more advantage of the abundance of talent in France. This moment can be highlighted by the rise of Kylian Mbappe, who has overtaken Neymar as the most important player in the team.

So where will Neymar fit in after his return? Some don’t even think he fits in at the moment. In an interview with RMC Sport radio, former France centre-forward Christophe Dugarry said he was “very happy for PSG that Neymar is injured. I think this is an incredible opportunity for [coach Christophe] Galtier. At some point he will need the courage to leave Neymar, that was the only solution.”

If there is no more room for him at PSG, where can he go? He has a contract until 2027 and very few clubs can afford his salary, let alone transfer costs. And most of them are in the Premier League, which never seemed like his ideal destination. In hindsight, he may have underestimated the physicality of the French league, and English football operates at an even higher level of intensity, with the addition of a deep-seated dislike of diving.

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

“Neymar is a real crybaby,” Van Basten told the Dutch publication. Ziggo Sport in October last year. “He constantly provokes. One second he commits a foul, and the next he plays the victim. Nobody has the right to touch him. He is a dirty and nasty player.”

What makes van Basten’s remarks especially poignant is that the Dutch master has cut his career short due to ankle injuries, the same problem that Neymar constantly faces. However, Van Basten blames medical errors for his troubles. He and many of his generation look to Neymar as someone who is trying to redefine football as a non-contact sport. Neymar is a product of his time and his environment.

The greatest producer of talent in the history of the game was the Brazilian street, the informal football played at any time on the road, in the park, anywhere available. But Neymar is too young to catch it in his prime. Many of these spaces have been eaten away by urban development. Many of the places that remain have become too dangerous due to the rise in urban violence.

The solution was to take the kids indoors, to a safer and more sanitary futsal environment. In informal street football, there are usually no referees. The skinny talented player will soon have to develop survival skills. He has to learn when to release the ball and when – close enough to the net to make it worth it – to start dribbling.

But Neymar learned how to defend himself in futsal, using the referee, showing the referee that he was being fouled. Some of his most disappointing performances are when he falls deep and seems to encourage fouls that win pointless free kicks. Whatever Van Basten thinks, there is little doubt that on the field he sins much more than he sins. But that’s the way it’s been with every skilled player since the beginning of the game, and today’s talent is getting far more protection than anyone who played football before tackles from behind were crushed in the early 1990s.

In the old days, Neymar would have had to put up with much harsher treatment. This magnificent strike against Croatia in the quarter-finals of the World Cup means that Neymar has scored as many goals as Pelé for Brazil. 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 award to be an inalienable right that Neymar would be able to return to 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 his move to PSG. Surely it’s time to remove this dream from a priority.

If there is a reward, it is not for any individual quest, but for work done in a collective context. Because these repetitive ankle injuries certainly take their toll, especially on a player in their thirties. Perhaps it would be harder to conjure up that vital extra acceleration speed that takes him away from the marker.

But this shift doesn’t have to make Neymar an ex. He is a truly remarkable talent, with excellent ability in both legs and extraordinary speed to assess situations. If he moves slower, he can still make the ball move faster, with more precision and intelligence than the vast majority of top class players. Will he be able to go through this adaptation process? Can the boy prince turn into a wise old owl? Can he be reborn as a high-ranking statesman?

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


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