Since the beginning of the Ligue 1 season, Neymar has been at the centre of pretty much everything in France. There has been the expected praise for his incredible talent; he’s probably the best player the country has ever had in its domestic league. There have been debates about the treatment he receives from opponents and all the fouls committed on him, but also regarding his provocative attitude.
It looked at times this season that an injury to the Brazil star was inevitable. He is kicked and fouled repeatedly; defenders are aggressive against him, and disproportionately so. He is the most fouled player in Ligue 1 along with Lyon’s captain, Nabil Fekir, and Ismaila Sarr, the very promising winger at Rennes. Those three are also in the Top 5 most fouled players in Europe this season, which shows the kind of special treatment they receive every week. It’s no surprise that all three have been injured at some point this season.
Being on the receiving end of rough treatment is not new for Neymar. He was also a big target in La Liga last season with Barcelona, but it looks like teams in France have taken it to a new level this year.
During Sunday’s game, Marseille’s captain Dimitri Payet told the referee to tell “Neymar to calm down or we will sort him out ourselves.” Two of Payet’s teammates, Valère Germain and Jordan Amavi, have also criticised the PSG star’s attitude, saying that he was going down too easily and that he was looking for fouls all the time.
Neymar showboats a lot. He provokes a lot and teases a lot, sometimes too much. We have seen him do a rainbow flick against Toulouse, control the ball with his back and follow it with a sombrero against Rennes. In his first ever PSG game, at Guingamp, back in August, he wasted no time in nutmegging Lucas Deaux.
This behaviour surely annoys some of his opponents, but the problem is more that he is so good and too often unstoppable that the only way to prevent his influence on a game is to foul him regularly. Overall though, his attitude to such tactics has not been enough the one of a great champion.
In response to the critics regarding his behaviour and his style of playing, Neymar spoke out after last month’s match against Rennes. “They were stopping me by fouling me and I was playing football. They provoked me but I also know how to provoke, in my own way, with the ball and with my football style.
“I am not here to kick out. I do not know how to do that. I defend myself with the ball. It will not help if defenders provoke me because I will provoke them even more.”
The irony is that Neymar injured himself on Sunday night against Marseille. It was not after a bad tackle, nor an over-the-top challenge. He just twisted his ankle 15 minutes before the end of the game, suffering a heavy sprain and cracking the fifth metatarsal of his foot as well.
Since Sunday evening, conflicting reports have emerged regarding where Neymar goes from here. There is much more hope if you read news in France (L’Equipe newspaper even stated it on their front page on Tuesday morning) than if you read them in Brazil where they are already saying that Neymar will have surgery and be out for two to three months. In his press conference on Tuesday, Unai Emery denied that his player had decided to have surgery. He even explained that his number 10 had “a little chance to be ready for the Real Madrid game” next week.
There is no way Neymar can be 100 percent fit next week, though. Even 70 percent fit looks like a very long shot. PSG will try, and are ready, to do anything they can to get him to play in the biggest game of the season so far. However, would Paris be better equipped to face Madrid with a ready-to-go Angel Di Maria instead of a partially fit Neymar?
Di Maria was upset not to even get a minute at the Bernabeu in the first leg and will be very hungry to prove Emery wrong in the return game. Also, could the team use Neymar’s injury and absence (if he is indeed out) as an incentive to be even more united and qualify in his honour?
For the team’s cohesion and collectivism, PSG are probably better with Di Maria than with Neymar. Nevertheless, they would be without a genius of a player capable of winning them the game with his individual brilliance alone.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.