The World Cup is less than three months away and, as is seemingly tradition, a broken metatarsal has afflicted one of the tournament’s main stars. The group of five long bones located just above toes in the foot first entered public jargon when David Beckham was struck with the injury in the lead up to the 2002 edition in Japan and South Korea, a problem which almost ruled the England captain out and left a nation fretting. 16 years later, it’s Neymar who must recover in time to lead out Brazil in Russia.
The severity of the injury – sustained in a league game against Marseille – and the solution to the problem caused much confusion last week. Neymar’s club Paris Saint-Germain remained tight lipped while their manager Unai Emery insisted that surgery wasn’t required and that he could even have taken an injection to play in the second leg of their Champions League tie with Real Madrid. This conflicted with the reports emanating from the Brazilian FA and the 26 year-old’s representatives, who both pushed for the opposite resolution.
In the end, Neymar went under the knife and is expected to be sidelined for three months. The decision to do so is undoubtedly the right call for the player personally. Nearing the accepted peak age for a footballer, this theoretically should be the World Cup in which he makes the greatest impression. It would have been nonsensical to risk that and further long-term damage just to try aid PSG’s latest futile bid for European glory.
In private quarters though, the Parisian side’s hierarchy must feel peeved that the substantial and mind boggling €220 million investment they made in the player will ultimately prove fruitless this season, not just due to the financial sums involved but also considering the almost unparalleled power they have allowed him wield.
In the build up to the first instalment of the Real Madrid tie, a number of unedifying stories on Neymar emerged, written by the well connected Spanish journalist Diego Torres – author of the brilliant book ‘The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho’. In his piece for El Pais, Torres documented the forward’s lavish and hedonistic lifestyle off the field as well as his disdain for many of his teammates. He implied that Neymar trains when he feels like it and does what he wants.
According to Torres, during his time at Barcelona ‘Ney’ once invited Javier Mascherano over to his plush Castelldefels mansion for dinner. Anticipating an opportunity to forge a relationship with his prodigious colleague, Mascherano accepted only to arrive and discover a collection of Neymar’s friends and acquaintances partying the night away. The Argentine sharply warned him that if he continued behaving in that way his career would be a very short one.
Rather than dissuade him though, Neymar has seemingly ignored Mascherano’s advice. At the beginning of February, he skipped training and a match in order to celebrate his birthday, a party that would last two days and embarrass the authority of his coach Emery, who was present but said that he left after the cake was cut.
The purpose of Neymar’s transfer to Paris was painted as an attempt to move out from Leo Messi’s shadow and become the number one player elsewhere in the quintessentially 21st century pursuit of the Ballon d’Or. They certainly reimburse him in a manner in which Messi would be familiar – Neymar allegedly earning an annual salary of €36 million – and there is an argument shared among many that he has parted with sporting ambition in favour of greed.
The final part of Torres’ piece focussed on Neymar’s non-existent, dismissive rapport with teammates and his intense jealously of Kylian Mbappe. He claimed that Neymar and his friend Dani Alves have begun refusing to pass to the Frenchman in the belief that he poses a threat to ‘Ney’s’ chances of winning the golden ball.
PSG midfielder Adrien Rabiot recently gave an interview to L’Equipe and admitted that his much vaunted teammate is treated differently to everyone else. “Inevitably Neymar is someone with privileges. You know it. It does not bother me. I do not pay attention to it. I’m not jealous”. For their part, the PSG owners Prince Jasim Al-Thani and Sheik Nasser Al-Khelaifi have indulged him in order to maintain his happiness, which perhaps is understandable when so much of the club’s credibility depends on the world’s most expensive player succeeding.
If Neymar’s professional integrity is currently called into question, stories of his lifestyle evoke memories of a fellow countryman of his. It was at a comparable age that Ronaldinho started to enjoy partying more than football. A day before he was due to play a Champions League game for Milan, he was spotted by supporters in a nightclub in the early hours of the morning. Eventually, his habits off the pitch caught up with his performances on it and soon he wasn’t dancing past defenders only dancing under dimmed lights at 6am. There is a crucial difference between Neymar and Ronaldinho though: at the same stage in Ronaldinho’s career, he had won everything including a World Cup, Champions League and the oh-so precious Ballon d’Or.
Still, none of this seems to have put off Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who is reportedly willing to ignore fan and board sentiment to sign Neymar as his latest Galactico. When quizzed on the possibility of his player taking his talents to the Spanish capital or to another European super-club, perhaps the most withering statement was left to the player’s agent Wagner Ribeiro.
“He already knows how big clubs are. Where will they allow him to live as he lives in Paris?”
Rarely has a person possessing such talent and alleged ambition wanted to work less to fulfil it. History suggests that there will be only one outcome and it won’t be the one Neymar wants.