Just over a year ago, the stage was set. ‘El no se queda’ after all, as Neymar wouldn’t be staying at Barcelona despite Gerard Pique’s bullish claims that the Brazilian wouldn’t leave the Nou Camp.
A world record fee was what it took, and Brazil’s footballing poster boy swapped the red-and-blue of Barcelona for the red-and-blue of Paris St. Germain. Word was Neymar had had enough of being in Lionel Messi’s shadow, and was pining to take ‘main man’ status somewhere else.
At PSG, the welcome, the unveiling, and the collection of a previously assigned number 10 shirt, showed he was going to have that status, all that was left was the little matter of delivering on the pitch.
On paper, it looks like he well and truly did. 28 goals from 30 games, from a player who predominantly plays out wide, and missed the last three months of the season, makes for good reading. But you wouldn’t fool even yourself if you said all went well.
Neymar’s first flashpoint as a PSG man came against his own teammate, the Brazilian and Edinson Cavani having a mini-kerfuffle over a penalty kick against Lyon in September, a developing form of player-power that was just about the beginning of the end former manager Unai Emery’s tenure.
His second flashpoint came in his sending off in Le Classique at Marseille, a game where PSG were heading for defeat until Cavani grabbed a stoppage-time equaliser with a free-kick- no prizes for guessing the fate of that late free-kick had Neymar still been on the pitch.
Ultimately, it mattered little in terms of the league, which PSG steamrollered to. But domestic dominance is the barest minimum at the Parc des Princes, European glory is the sought-after prize.
The club from the French capital hadn’t made it past the last eight since the arrival of their Qatari owners, and in Neymar’s first season it would be no different, a 5-2 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid sent them crashing out in the last 16.
Neymar was absent for the second leg of that tie, having gotten injured before it, but in this often black-and-white sport, he was bound to be remembered as having played a minimal part in the first leg. Simply put, Neymar didn’t perform when it mattered the most.
That was also his case with Brazil at the World Cup. In 2014, Neymar stood out in rather flawed Brazilian side as the star man, and, after his injury at the end of the quarter-final against Colombia, La Selacao crumbled.
Four years on, Neymar stuck out in a more-rounded Brazilian team with his antics, his tendency to dive and overplay contact subjecting him to as many memes as it did him derision, and it all came crashing down after Brazil were knocked out in the last eight by Belgium.
According to many, that game showcased the fact that Eden Hazard is the better footballer, and that it was the Belgian captain whom Real Madrid should be interested in, not, if reports are to be believed, Neymar.
That seemed a bit absurd in truth; the concept of giving verdict over two players subject to comparison by means of a game between both men’s teams will remain underrated in its ludicrousness, but those who made those judgements weren’t without their points.
Hazard had stuck to business with the ball, gave the Brazilian defence a torrid time, and was the one who headed for the semi-final, while Neymar had gained more spotlight with his play-acting than his playing, his style seemed to be an unnecessary hindrance to Brazil at times, and he and his nation were heading home.
Ego, a point to prove ahead of the new season. The onus is on Neymar to deliver, all eyes will be watching him with as much fondness as Nigerians have for their politicians, the Brazilian is now that footballing villain who’d do anything to get his way- a tag he could well use to his favour. .
There’s nothing so wrong with having off-the-ball antics on the pitch, Diego Costa’s ability to rile defenders up is as key to his game as his goal-scoring exploits, but as Costa himself knows, without the on-the-ball qualities to complement the despicable acts off it, you’re the subject of derisive mockery.
And that’s Neymar’s task ahead of the new season. Does he necessarily have to put a stop to his frolics? Perhaps not. Does he have to match them with consistent displays with the ball and proof that he can be a leader in his team’s quest for glory? Definitely.
His exclusion from the top 10 nominee-list for September’s ‘The Best’ award is an indication of his fall, yet also a source of motivation as he joins up with the PSG squad after his exploits in Russia .
The talent is as undeniable as the attitude is debatable.