8 minutes. The insignificance of human beings is signified by the fact the Sun you look at was actually the Sun 8 minutes prior. Such is the distance between the Earth and the Sun that light cannot travel in the usual instance we are accustomed to, like when we flick a switch and it immediately illuminates a dark room.
8 minutes. 3-1 up on the night. 5-3 down on aggregate. As Sergi Roberto wheels away to complete the craziest comeback in Champions League history, the man at the centre of it all was Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. A beautiful free kick, a composed penalty and a beautiful assist was what changed despair in the 88th min to ecstasy-laden carnage for Barcelona, as the Blaugrana defied the odds to reach the quarter finals.
8 minutes. The semi-final hurdled had finally been conquered. This, however, is 3 and a half years later and the jubilant scenes are now with PSG. Once again, at the centre of it all was the now most expensive player to ever play the game, Neymar.
Two last gasp goals had turned a shock defeat into a relieving win. 89th min: It is still 1-0 to Atalanta. 90th min: 1-1 – Neymar controlled a cross from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting before sliding in the assist to Marquinhos, his national compatriot. 93rd min: 2-1 to Paris – a disguised pass from Neymar to Kylian Mbappé, his club compatriot in many ways, who assisted Choupo-Moting. 98th min: Game done.
In the end, in a similar fashion to The Great Gatsby, the Old Money of Bavaria stopped the New Money of Paris and stopped the Brazilian’s dreams in his tracks. A feat that would have rubber-stamped his controversial move to Paris-Saint Germain and in an era that should be his own, it may well be another chapter in the story of Neymar being a star too far.
The talent of Neymar is prodigious. Not since Ronaldinho has there been a player that has so well combined the flair and ruthlessness of an attacker. The Ginga rhythm of Brazil and the Santos Tabelinha playing style, by way of Scotland, along with the efficiency and efficacy that modern football has become as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi set unprecedented levels statistically.
The Brazilian never reached those levels but the levels he did reach were still marked enough to realise his great productivity. Yet there is a strange slightly dim look on the career of Neymar. A view that has followed him since his footballing infancy.
The return of Robinho to Santos in 2010, on a loan deal from Manchester City, was a big story. He was coming back after he was sent to Europe to be what Pelé would have been if he were allowed to venture those shores. It did not work out as it should have. He underwhelmed with Madrid and City, before he came back in an attempt to force his way into the 2010 World Cup squad with regular game time. Yet, it was a 17-year-old, who was forcing himself into the reckoning.
The extravagantly spiky-haired, wiry, fleet footed winger of Neymar was only stealing the limelight. So much so that the conversation soon turned into whether Neymar would get in alongside Robinho. Dunga eventually decided it was too soon for the now 18-year-old. Brazil would be beaten by the eventual runners up of Netherlands and from then on, it was a question of Neymar leading the country for the 2014 World Cup, to be held in Brazil.
The first Copa Libertadores since Pelé’s days was brought back to the city of Santos and Neymar was the centrepiece. He weaved, he bobbed. He assisted and he scored. His goal vs Flamengo, dribbling through virtually the whole team, would controversially win the FIFA Puskas Award over Wayne Rooney’s overhead effort to win the Manchester Derby.
Photo: Getty Images
The 2011 Copa América was an embarrassment as Brazil bowed out in the quarter finals to a Paraguay side which would not win a game in regulation time the whole tournament. Neymar scored two goals in the last group game to take them through but he was not able to take a penalty as he was 5th taker, Brazil missing all four they had taken. The Club World Cup in December 2011, where Santos faced what many consider the best footballing side in history, Guardiola’s Barcelona.
They were wiped 4-0, Neymar unable to contribute in a game that Guardiola played 3-4-3 alike to Ajax’s team that won the Champions League under Louis van Gaal. In the absence of serious competitive fixtures, Brazil took the 2012 Olympics incredibly seriously, Neymar once again leading the way as the star of the team. They would be beaten in the final by Mexico in a shock defeat.
Next, Brazil did a world tour of friendlies to compensate in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. There were the friendlies vs England, one in February 2013 at Wembley and then in June in the Maracaña. He performed better in the latter, testing England repeatedly in the first half as he showed his creative capabilities but even then, it was not enough for people to see what the fuss was all about.
All of this contributed to the idea that Neymar would be another that would come to Europe and fail. His light was too far away and not big enough for anyone to care in Europe. He was linked with moves throughout the years of bursting onto the scene before he became the big money 2013 signing for Barcelona, a move that has since been marred with the illegalities that went with it.
Before he would finally leave Santos behind, he would play in the Confederations Cup. Finally with broader focus than just those in Brazil, he was able to show why exactly those who had watched him week in week out hung their hat on him so firmly. The goals and performances were special, particularly his dispatching of the then world champions, Spain, in a 3-0 battering. The stellar nebula of Neymar was to cross the ocean and announce himself in Europe.
The story of Neymar at Barcelona is well trodden and known. A difficult first year: adapting to Europe, Les Cúles without a fit Messi, his own injury problems, an under pressure coach. There were bright moments, like the Supercopa de España winning goal over Atlético Madrid, but they were too few and far between. He would shine again for Brazil on the world stage, in his own backyard at the 2014 World Cup.
Neymar dazzled until his back was cracked in the quarter finals vs Colombia. The team would go on to win, but the emotional effect of losing their talisman was a big contributing factor in the next fixture, the 7-1 defeat at the hands of the Germans. Barcelona continued to struggle in the next season, with Luis Enrique at the helm, until January 2015 when the trio of MSN finally clicked. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar formed a beautiful trident and it would win Barca their first Champions League since Pep had left.
Messi was injured for a period in 2015 but Neymar grew into the role and perhaps put together his best ever form in Europe. The goal vs Villarreal was in the midst of those performances. He was shining bright but his star was still dwelled once Messi was back. He was a sum of parts. Special parts but a part nonetheless and not even the most illuminating part. He was still capable of shining, the famed remontada of 2017 vs PSG is an example. It was time for him to go out on his own. Carve his own legacy.
The other side of remontada is where he would ply his trade – Paris Saint Germain. €222 million deposited in Barcelona’s bank account, against their, and even La Liga’s, wishes but hands tied by the release clause. He would not be alone. Mbappé, the starboy from Monaco, would be joining him that same summer.
It’s easy to play alongside great players, rarely do they present an awkward fit. The grace of Neymar powering and releasing the pace of Mbappé, Ángel Di María and Edinson Cavani adding touches to the piece whenever necessary. The problem was that the might and money that ran through Paris, courtesy of Qatar Sports Investment, had turned Ligue 1 into a monopoly.
These supreme acquisitions only served to confirm the authority and stamp out any possible resistance. The real stage was the Champions League. The hurdle of the last 16 was stumbled on two years in a row, once to the eventual winners of Real Madrid and then quite embarrassingly the year after to an injury ridden Man Utd side. Neymar played 1 out of these 4 games, the 3-1 first leg defeat to Real Madrid. If only he was able to stay fit for just one campaign.
It would be this year. The Coronavirus pandemic had strewn the Champions League across the year. Some second legs occurred in March, others in August. What it did present was a knockout tournament unseen in the competition’s history. One leg ties in Lisbon, much like international tournament football. PSG had overcome a youthfully exuberant Borussia Dortmund side in March, Neymar once again being the catalytic figure.
More than ever, it looked like it would be their year. Then Mbappé was poleaxed in the Trophée Des Champions, which put him in doubt for the quarter finals. Marco Verratti was definitely out for that match up, with a calf injury that was picked up in training. All this alongside Di María being suspended. The one time Neymar had been declared fit was the one time his favoured co-stars were not due to play with him.
To say he performed admirably without them would be an understatement. He was sensational in all departments – except from sticking the ball in the back of the net. Woeful in that regard, and it followed throughout the tournament, yet his general play was wonderful. His chance creation, progression of play, his dribbling, pressing, you name it.
Photo: David Ramos / POOL / AFP
It is the Neymar we have become accustomed to – the beauty in twisting players inside and out, the passing ability, the movement between the lines, it could be one touch or it could be many. The football was accented with his trademark skills. It began with Atalanta and continued into the game with Leipzig. It stopped with Bayern Munich. The same fluency was not there.
The one big chance he got, he fluffed. By the end of the game, those many touches that were beautiful became regressive. Rather than passing the ball quickly in order to take advantage of Bayern’s open spaces, he was constantly turning over the ball. He was getting rattled and not being composed in his decision making.
It was a raggedy performance by the end and it was a sorry end to what could have been a great story where Neymar illuminated Benfica’s home stadium with the European ‘Big Ears’, aptly nicknamed Estádio da Luz, Stadium of Light.
So when you go back to those 8 minutes, those minutes that Neymar was so influential in that comeback vs the Italian team, that comeback vs the team he represents now, you start to wonder when Neymar will be at the forefront of such an occasion in a big final. He put the shine on the Champions League final in 2015 when Barcelona got past Juventus but for club and country, it hasn’t seemed to happen for him in the biggest moments.
The Copa América was won without him in 2019. Brazil were not able to make it past the quarters in World Cup 2018, even despite Neymar’s best efforts with a fantastic second half performance vs Belgium. In the era he is in, when you have Ronaldo who has redefined the role of being clutch for your team and Messi, who has virtually carried Barcelona alone since Neymar’s departure, it is hard to live up to such standards. In the night sky, when one star shines brighter, the other is harder to be seen. Imagine having to compete with two.
Now though, the stars of the Portuguese and Argentine are fading and Neymar was always seen as the natural successor. But even he himself, is getting to an age where the best of him may have already been seen. The injuries could be taxing him in more ways than one.
Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson / EFE
He will be 29 in February. Of course that is not over the hill, but this would be the back end of his prime. For so long, Neymar has been having to prove himself. Whether he was worth the hype that was coming from Brazil. Whether his move to PSG was well thought out. Whether he would even get the chance to stake his claim as number one in football. He is having to prove himself worthy of sitting on the throne after perhaps the most domineering era in football.
What further proves man’s insignificance in this universe is the fact that each star we see in the night sky, not how big or how much light it gives out, has its own solar system. For someone of Neymar’s ethereal ability, it would be a shame for his talent to be shrouded by reductive comparisons to those just before.
What’s more, a star we now see could be so far away that by the time we are able to see it, the star has already gone through its cycle and died.
It would be a shame if the proficiency of Neymar’s talent was only able to reach us once he has decided to put his boots away. All it could take is one more cycle of a light ray from the Sun to the Earth for Neymar to finally produce that defining moment for his career. We’ve seen it before.
By: Elijah Sofoluke
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Jean Catuffe