If Brazil win the 2022 World Cup in Qatar later this year Neymar may well retire from national team football and probably from club football soon thereafter. His decade-long Sisyphean task will come to an end one way or another, with one twist.
The 30-year-old Brazilian has been his country’s indispensable player for a decade. During his time leading the Selecao he has had a number of good teammates, but he has never enjoyed support at the level of the previous generation’s fabled 3-Rs Rivaldo-Ronaldinho-Ronaldo level or of the generation before that one with Romario-Bebeto-Rai.
Over that ten-year span, he has led Santos to national and international trophies, Barcelona to national and international trophies, and PSG to national trophies. When the Paris team wins the UEFA Champions League Neymar will have won every club trophy available to him in three leagues and spanning two continents. It is this World Cup, though, that will be his legacy.
He was injured and unavailable to play for Brazil in their Copa America win (2019) and he was rampant tournament-wide except in the final, where he was politically restrained to accommodate the Lionel Messi-coronation Copa America 2021 (the fourth quadrennial cup played in a seven-year span to accommodate FIFA’s and CONMEBOL’s agendas since Argentina kept losing in the final). But now comes Qatar.
The World Cup is the theater upon which the globe measures the performances of all who want to inhabit the Pantheon of Superstars of our sport. Neymar was severely injured and out of the tournament in the Quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, which his country hosted. The following outing, he arrived in poor form and had the misfortune of being the most fouled player in a single World Cup match (against Switzerland) in Russia’s 2018 cup. He had just returned to playing football 14 days prior after recovering from a fractured metatarsal in his right foot suffered in February of 2018. “Coincidentally,” 15 of the 22 fouls that were called in his favor in that one game were perpetrated on his right foot.
Neymar’s 2022 has been a good year by comparison to his previous World Cup years and he is hopeful to reach Qatar in form and in good physical shape. If his PSG performances are our guide—he leads PSG and Ligue 1 in goals and assists as of this writing—then he is rounding into top form.
Just as important, though, for a true World Cup challenge, Neymar is not alone this time around. No, the second paragraph above was not a series of typos. The issue is that for once Brazil’s keepers, defense, midfield, and offense can and have succeeded without Neymar—see Copa America 2019. When Neymar has an assist-level play at PSG, he is banking on the recipient of his pass to convert the opportunity—half the time those recipients are Messi and Kylian Mbappe. One does not need that caliber of a recipient to succeed, though, a mere Gabriel Jesus, Richarlison, Firmino, Vinicius Jr., Raphina, Lucas Paqueta, Gabriel Martinelli, Antony, or Raphinha will do. Just as nice is having Alisson Becker, Marquinhos, Alex Telles, Thiago Silva, Eder Militao Casemiro, Fred, Arthur, Fabinho, and Philippe Coutinho covering for him down the field. So, you see, Ney has options and backing now.
So now, for the first time in his national team career, Neymar will be free to be Neymar the player and not have to also be the symbol of the Canarinha, to shoulder his entire nation’s aspirations as he did for the Gold Medal win in the 2016 Olympics, for example. This all bodes well for Ney and for Brazil.
But as Achilles had his heel Neymar has his little boy’s ego—the one that does not permit him, once on the pitch, to allow a slight to go without retaliation whether it be a poor officiating call against him or his team, or an unsportsmanlike physical challenge on his person, and when he starts reacting, he unravels. He loses his concentration and plays as a mere mortal. So, he needs to round into psychological form too and for this, he needs adult supervision for even at 30 he often seems not to have matured into adulthood.
The best way to keep Neymar on the straight and narrow is to surround him with teammates and a coach, Tite, who can do their jobs well. Showing by their example how responsible player-adults behave and succeed on the national team will go a long way toward making 2022’s outing a success for Neymar and Brazil.
Photo: Neymar Shutterstock ID: 1282004545 by Alizada Studios
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