In the end, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo departing the World Cup on the same day was most convenient. The tournament’s prelude and duration had been dominated by discussions of what, if anything, could be added to their respective legacies, and early, simultaneous elimination has killed that conversation stone dead.
Rightly so, too, because this tournament has never been about them. In the broader sense, all football is really about Ronaldo and Messi. They are the game’s pre-eminent figures and will be bound forever by their oddly binary relationship. Nevertheless, neither needs Russia 2018. Both would have liked to win it, but neither player was dependent on it for any sort of validation.
Neymar, however, might be.
2017-18 has been a strange year for him. His move to Paris Saint-Germain will, in time, likely be remembered as one of the vainest miscalculations the modern game has witnessed. Beyond the obvious, the only true reward a transfer to France offered him was a stage to himself and the opportunity to pad his statistics. Now, a year on and with the terminal flaws of the club’s Champions League ambition laid bare, even a swollen bank account and Parisien deification seems like a poor substitute for what he was willing to give up.
Since arriving in Europe, Neymar has been the heir apparent to the Ballon d’Or. He’s proven himself worthy of that lineage, too, and is arguably the most talented player on the face of the Earth. Now 26, he is approaching or has already arrived at his prime and, with Messi and Ronaldo both hearing their career’s final days, he’s primed for succession.
Curiously though, that point seems further away than ever before. Outside of Brazil, Neymar may well be admired, but he isn’t universally loved. In fact, the mood has begun to change at home for him, too, with high-profile Brazilian journalists willing to question his histrionics as well as his social habits. The animosity he has drawn across his first four games in Russia was to be expected, but that apparent shift in his own country’s attitude towards him is more revealing. He is an icon of South American football, Brazil’s golden ticket, and yet – for some – the ends don’t seem to justify the means. To them, the weight of his brattishness is greater than his ability’s effect.
It’s not difficult to understand why that perception exists. Neymar would seem to embody many of the less liked aspects of the sport. Even within that small sample of games, the watching world has seen the rainbow: the artful flicks and attacking surges, but also the play-acting and the comedic narcissism. It’s unusual. Most great players, some of whom haven’t been nearly as gifted as the Brazilian, eventually make the debate around their personality redundant. Many supporters, for instance, who have always found Ronaldo a tough pill to swallow and actively resent his greatness on account of how it manifests. In the past, Michel Platini, Romario and Lothar Matthaus have been in similar situations; all possessed divisive personalities and yet, crucially, their ability to perform made any surrounding context virtually meaningless. If anyone didn’t enjoy watching Romario score goals, for instance, than that was really their problem – as if to focus on something other than his literal footballing worth was to miss the point.
Neymar doesn’t yet enjoy such a privilege. For now, his performances remain enslaved to the perception of his character. His excellence – and he is an outstanding footballer – isn’t ignored, but it’s only recognised with caveats. A lament about simulation, a remark about his lack of grace, or speculation as to what he might be if endowed with a greater sense of maturity.
In the space of two group stage weeks in June, he managed to score once, execute a near-perfect and wholly unnecessary rainbow flick, burst into tears, swear repeatedly in the face of a referee and dive to win a penalty (later overturned by VAR). In Brazil’s first knockout game, he gave an even neater precís, scoring an important first goal but then jack-knifing in faux-agony after Miguel Layún’s soft tread. He wasn’t done there; at full-time he gave a classlesss, crowing interview which removed the gloss from what had been a fine Brazilian performane.
For a player who isn’t yet fully fit, he’s given a remarkably complete account of himself.
And that’s the salient point: this is what’s expected of Neymar – he is the footballer who comes with these frills and asterisks. Whereas Leo Messi has always been unambiguously about his talent and Ronaldo is perpetually focussed on self-glorification-through-goals, the aims of their heir apparent are more vague. With him, there’s a more confused mission: does he want to be the best player in the world, or just the most famous and best paid? Is he about substance or clicks, the craft of his occupation or its neon glamour? It’s a false dichotomy in a sense, the two often go hand-in-hand, but giving priority to the latter is a form of ultra-modernism which is hard to comprehend.
It’s a situation which stresses the importance of this World Cup, at least in regard to his reputation. Neymar won’t win the Champions League at Paris Saint-Germain. This summer, the club are working against a Financial Fair Play deficit and are denied their usual transfer power. With that in mind, there’s no reason to believe that they will get any further in the Champions League than they did last season. Without doing so, Neymar’s case for winning the Ballon d’Or would be extremely weak. Should that prove to be the case, that would emphasise the sense of self-sabotage that still surrounds his departure from Barcelona and accentuate the popular belief that his ego was just too large to survive the privilege of playing alongside Messi.
But a World Cup win changes that – or would at least begin a movement away from it. Without question, it would also soothe the irritation in Brazil and, perhaps, convince the watching world that the nonsense is worth tolerating. Conversely though, should his country fail to win the tournament from here, with so few credible contenders left, then he will never be able to disentangle himself from these past few weeks. He will be the villain, the distraction and a scapegoat for eternity.
Ultimately, the little boy who couldn’t grow up in time to be truly great.