If one human year is worth seven in dog years, what is the equation comparing a civilian career to that of a professional footballer? Neymar turned 27 on Tuesday, and next month it will be 10 years since he made his professional debut. If he were a working stiff like the rest of us, he’d be well past the halfway point, maybe somewhere in his late 40s. Nowhere near the end, but at the stage when the time you have left is less than the time you had.
Neymar was the next big thing in Brazilian football, the latest in a long line of candidates who were meant to grow up, deliver World Cups and stake their claim alongside Pele, still the GOAT to many, in addition to Zico, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. All of them were household names before their 20th birthday, all were hyped to high heaven, and all had that manifest destiny thrust upon them.
In many ways, though, Neymar was billed as more than that. He was The Answer. He was Brazil’s response to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two men who have stoked the GOAT debate more than ever before, breaking out of the Pele-Maradona infinity loop. With one, hailing from the colonial power, Portugal, which ruled Brazil until 1889, he shares a birthday and a love of social media. With the other, who’s from Brazil’s eternal footballing rival, Argentina, he shared a dressing room at Barcelona for four seasons.
Now, as Ronaldo and Messi continue scoring and dominating past their 30th birthdays, irony has decreed that the next big thing is a player Neymar sees every day in training at PSG: Kylian Mbappe, who turned 20 last December but already has a World Cup winners’ medal to polish at home.
All of which raises the question: Has Neymar fulfilled his promise?
The quickest path to footballing immortality is repeated success with your national team. Here, the record is mixed. Neymar’s first Copa America, in 2011, saw his Brazil team knocked out in the quarterfinals on penalties. His second lasted 180 minutes because he was sent off and subsequently banned for going after the referee at the final whistle.
The World Cup? In 2014, he wasn’t fully fit and carried the weight of expectations of 180 million hopeful Brazilians and the ghosts of the Maracanazo on his back. He willed a subpar Selecao to the semifinals, only to miss it — and the ensuing 1-7 humiliation against Germany — after he suffered a broken vertebrae.
Four years later, he landed in Russia, coming off yet another injury and with a huge chip on his shoulder. He tried to do too much in the early stages, but then came of age as the tournament wore on, only for Brazil’s tournament to end with a quarterfinal defeat to Belgium.
That denied us the signature image of Neymar cradling a major international trophy — unless you count Olympic gold or the Confederations Cup, which you really shouldn’t — but does it matter? Do we really want to reopen this can of worms? Isn’t the fact that he’s already among Brazil’s top 10 in terms of international appearances, third all time in goals and has a legitimate shot at retiring as No. 1 in both categories enough to shut up the naysayers?
Leaving aside the fact that he’ll be 30 in 2022 — and there are another two Copa Americas between now and then, including this summer’s in Brazil — what strikes you most is how Neymar’s club record suggests an awareness of wanting to make history.
Neymar could have easily left Brazil for Europe at 18, having already delivered his first domestic trophy. But he turned down suitors, sticking around to win the Copa Libertadores with Santos, their first since — who else? — Pele nearly half a century earlier. It’s something that is often overlooked in Europe: Neymar ran the risk of an ill-timed tackle denying him tens of millions to stay and make a greater mark in his home country.
In some ways, it ties in to the choice he would make years later, rocking the blaugrana world in the summer of 2017, when Paris Saint-Germain made him the most expensive player of all time and he swapped the Camp Nou for the Parc des Princes. His critics spoke of little more than greed (he got a raise to $40 million a season), ego (he was out of Lionel Messi’s shadow) and style over substance: For all the hype of the MSN front line (Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar), Barcelona won just two league titles and one Champions League crown in the four years he was there. Neymar spun it as a need to plow his own path. What better way to do that than by turning a pretender into a powerhouse?
You’re tempted to be cynical, particularly when considering his commercial punch, which is multiplied by his 100 million-plus Instagram followers, meticulously ever-changing look and a Qatari-cash-fuelled global marketing campaign. Yet if you think back a few years to the moment he said “no” to Europe, maybe, just maybe, you might give him the benefit of the doubt.
Throw in the fact that, last season, injury robbed him of a second-leg appearance against Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 and that injury, again, may take his shot at the biggest prize in club football away from him this campaign, and maybe you wonder: Has he just been unlucky?
Then, just as you feel sympathy, you think about how his transfers ended in legal wrangles (the first, to Barcelona, resulted in the president, Sandro Rosell, being jailed and revelations that the club had vastly misstated the fee; the second saw an ugly squabble over loyalty bonuses). And you consider how to some he’s the poster boy of a certain type of prima donna footballer, to the point that a poll by the French radio station RTL found that 84 percent of respondents blame his “provocations” for the abuse he gets from defenders.
That’s the Neymar contradiction.
This is a guy who has ridden the hype and image wagon to untold riches yet at the same time appears to not care how he’s viewed by opponents and the general public. A guy who unblinkingly accepts responsibility for his national team even when he has to play with Fred, Jo and Hulk (because Tom, Dick and Harry were unavailable). A guy who is depicted as greedy and selfish, yet at the same time builds a mega-complex, which takes up an entire block in his native Villa Jardim neighbourhood in Praia Grande, near Sao Paulo, with the purpose of providing meals, medical care, language lessons and after-school activities to impoverished children a few steps from where he grew up. Sure, plenty of athletes are also philanthropists, but Neymar’s foundation serves 2,500 kids daily and is funded directly by him and his sponsors, whom he cajoles into supporting it.
Has Neymar lived up to the hype? If the hype means ascending to Pele levels, then no. If it means being the best possible player he can be — injuries be damned — and not hiding when it matters while breaking records and affecting people’s lives, then he’s pretty darn close.
He’s doing it in his own way.