WHow do you cry for Neymar? Not many people. Perhaps except for Neymar himself, who cries a lot and is not always sad. A quick internet search for the song “Neymar’s Tears” revealed 4.73 million hits, from tears of Brazil to tears of Barcelona, to brave tears, sad tears, and tears as Neymar saluted. [insert celebrity friend], to the tears of mucus washing full and hot cinematic saline. So, a lot of tears.
The good news is that you can also get 18 million cheerful songs of “Neymar happy”: a nod to a streak of smiles, adorable winks, and multimillion-dollar smiles. Some people have this glow about them. I once saw a woman faint in the airport departure hall after unexpectedly coming face-to-face with Bill Clinton – please, no comments – who has the same sense of fascination with human events. Clinton just laughed, the laughter of confession – yes Siri, madam, that’s what I do – as his victim was led away.
Neymar has this quality too: existence, destiny, a kind of light. Or at least he had it. Because there is something. The day is starting to get a little darker.
The next best player, the longest serving player in the world, turns 30 in three months. He was in Manchester on Wednesday night with PSG, a third of the most expensive and most famous attack ever on the football field. It wasn’t pretty. He was lukewarm and outspoken, spending large parts of the evening wandering the field like a man searching for his keys in a field.
It is, of course, fashionable to hate Neymar, to constantly accuse the brilliant footballer of theatre, virtuosity and all the other things. But for anyone who has loved watching him play, the idea that the spark might be waning is a real note of sadness.
There were glimpses of the union. When moved with a purpose, Neymar still looks like he’s made of candy canes and Melville pastries, floating in unicorn boots. He did a nice decoy for the PSG goal. There was a single wild slalom track, culminating in a shocking finish in the blue pillar shaft to the side of the goal.
He basically looked restrained, and was portrayed as a supporting act when he used to command the entire creative end of his club and national teams. An overlooked fact: Neymar has often done well for PSG and Brazil in the big matches. His best chance of winning the Champions League came as a major creative star and went two years ago under Thomas Tuchel, but Neymar was excellent at qualifying for the final. Had Kylian Mbappe buried one key player against Bayern Munich, we might have come to a different point in that arc.
Instead, this was the first true dead spell. Neymar has nearly 200 goals in European football. He has not scored in the Champions League for a year. It doesn’t help that he plays in a famous team made by Jerry. Watching Messi in Manchester was like peeking a street artist on a crowded sidewalk, doing a tribute to one-on-one Lionel Messi.
There is a plan here, starting positions and basic roles. But sometimes you could throw a sad comforter cover on these three star strikers as they roamed different parts of the field.
It’s easy for Neymar to get a little worried in the middle of this. There is a tendency to assume that because footballers are rich and famous, they are immune to normal human pain and anxiety, and that their suffering is meaningless. But Neymar struggled with being a Neymar, with the rigors of life created for him.
This is a guy who’s spent nearly his entire career as next in line, a strange drain situation with the rise of other superstars, where the players in front of you refuse to back down until your yard begins. Maybe Neymar hasn’t missed his window yet. But the real fine point, his shot at excel, fades away.
What will his legacy be? At the moment, his main role is to be a pawn for the big football money. There’s a toxic flowchart you can plot, from Neymar’s ridiculous £200m move to Paris Saint-Germain, through Barcelona’s self-destruction, the clever hedge funder’s play at Liverpool, skewed career paths and ostentatious spending, and the ripples that are still in circulation.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This is a footballer whose talent is basically a joyful thing. I saw Neymar live for the first time at the Arena in Sao Paulo in 2014. He didn’t have a great match. But we all left cooing about body delight, this sweet little sherbet and feathered imp. Seven years later, he’s back again, like a talent disfigured by the big sport machines, and wreathed it in a sort of melancholy as he rambled through the grass in East Manchester. Look how they slaughtered my son.
Of course there are choices in this, and Neymar was drinking from a strange cup. The PSG project, founded in the framework of the public relations ambitions of the nation state, is one of those forces operating far from the edge of the sport, increasing its limits and power.
There is a feeling in Paris now that Zinedine Zidane was the man who dissolved this team, and that only Zizou really knows how to make the postmodern Galactico team work. This may be the case. Talent trumps everything in the end. Load enough of it into the room and you’re bound to hit something.
But from Super Leagues to sports as a famous car that model will eventually do for those sharp edges, the part that maintains this common obsession as something of human play and drama. Flexible sport. But there is something sickly about the direction of travel; And the feeling, even in the glare of center stage, that something is going to get lost along the way.