Sublime form in the past month has respected figures of the game already tipping the Brazilian winger to overtake Barça teammate Lionel Messi and Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s greatest player whilst Premier League clubs queue up to capture his signature. However, a re-emergence of poor discipline and immaturity could now see him sitting out of this month’s vital El Clasico and causing further damage to his team’s attempt to reclaim La Liga.
“He is a worthy successor to Messi and is on the road to big things.” stated struggling Sevilla coach, and fellow compatriot to Barcelona’s famous number 10, Jorge Sampaoli, in the aftermath of his side’s 3-0 humbling at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night.
These sentiments were then echoed by Neymar’s national coach, Tite, who went on to brand his chosen captain for the last of nine consecutive wins under the ex-Corinthians boss’ command, in a reversal of fortunes that has seen Brazil go from qualification doubtfuls to the first team to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia and amongst the favourites to win the competition, as the planet’s best player thus far in 2017.
Just three days later however, the worst parts of Neymar’s game would rear their ugly head in a must-win clash against Malaga – after a Madrid derby stalemate left the door wide open for Barça to go top of the table on goal difference for the first time in months – and remind the football world that the 25-year-old still has some way to go in order to reach its summit.
Stupidly, he picked up a first yellow card around the half hour mark for time-wasting as he blocked an opposite number’s free kick attempt by taking an age to tie his boot laces. Not long into the second half, with Barça 1-0 down and desperately needing an equaliser, Neymar must have forgotten his first yellow or simply lost his head by unnecessarily barging into centre back and Real Madrid loanee Diego Llorente – extracting a revenge of sorts after ironically being sent off in the first installment of this fixture earlier in the season for a foul on the Brazilian – and being shown a red card.
Although receiving two yellows in a game usually results in just a one match suspension, the manner in which Neymar headed off the pitch towards the tunnel, sarcastically applauding the fourth official whilst uncontrollably running his mouth could, after having made referee Jesus Gil Manzano’s postgame report, see him watching El Clasico – a fixture Barça badly need him for and to win if they are to keep their bitter rivals from claiming the Spanish league title – from the bench.
It’s a shame things had to end this way. After all, since around the beginning of March, Neymar, as indicated by Tite, has undoubtedly been in the form of his life in a whirlwind month of football that saw him mark his 100th goal in a Barça shirt, overtaking boyhood idol Ronaldinho in the club’s all-time scorer rankings, leading the now-fabled 6-5 aggregate Champions League comeback against PSG at the Nou Camp as the orchestrator of three late goals in seven minutes, and a wonder goal against Uruguay that booked his country’s safe passage to Russia 2018.
With Lionel Messi suspended recently for similar, out-of-character dissent, Neymar took centre stage as Barça’s star player and handled expectations well by bringing the Catalonian club within touching distance of Real’s haughty lead when it had previously seemed as though the title had already been wrapped up with a substantial points difference and games still in hand.
This form, unsurprisingly, had Premier League clubs falling over themselves to lure the youngster to English shores with Manchester United among the frontrunners and even reportedly prepared to trigger an outrageous €200mn release clause to capture his services before Jose Mourinho ended speculation by likening any attempt to turn the 25-year-old’s head to “breaking into a safe”. Elsewhere, Mourinho’s successor at Chelsea, Antonio Conte, apparently also blocked a €180mn bid for his signature last month.
While any move from Catalonia seems highly unlikely, one would think that, if any English club did have a chance to capture Neymar – it would be Chelsea. After all, as highlighted by a recent book extract chronicling the race to capture the then-teenage ace’s signature, the West London club have prior history with his entourage and pulled out all the stops in an attempt to woo the boy’s father and Santos FC president Luis Álvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro; coming close with a rejected €35mn offer at the conclusion of a 2010 meeting in New York after his debut for the Brazilian national team.
Perhaps, in a throwback to the film noir era, by making a panicked call to officials in Brazil from a phone booth as soon as Israeli deal maker and Roman Abramovich confidant Pini Zahavi turned his back and made his way through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, Alvaro then apparently ordered the preparation of a long-term business model specifically designed to keep the wolves at bay and Neymar at Santos as long as possible.
After helping the club claim its first Copa Libertadores title since the days of its other famous academy product, Pele, in 1963, Neymar saw his stock increased as Chelsea again came knocking with a sales pitch from its director of football described by those close to the player as “the best ever seen” with promises made to make him the next Michael Jordan upon a move to Stamford Bridge.
Neymar however had always had his sights set on Barça, with whom he struck a pre-contract agreement to join in 2014 after the World Cup which was eventually brought forward a year. Despite a bumpy start and slumps in form – the last of which saw him go without a single goal for two months until breaking the deadlock against Eibar at the end of January this year – which have some sceptics scoffing at his hefty price tag, his rise to the top has been a joy to watch and talk of him becoming the first man since fellow Brazilian Kaka in 2007 to destabilise Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s seemingly unbreakable grip on the Ballon D’or has become common currency among pundits and fans alike.
Critics however cast doubt on Neymar’s ability to go from August to May in top form, as Messi and Ronaldo have constantly over the last decade, citing a lack of concentration which can perhaps be linked to this weekend’s sending off but cannot assume the entire blame. Also present was a former habit of lashing out and reacting to the constant physicality of opposition defenders, a trait many thought Neymar had left behind after long-time tormentors Colombia pushed him into a receiving a red card and subsequent four match ban in a 1-0 victory over Brazil that had much to do with their early exit from 2015’s edition of the Copa America.
Indeed, up until now, Neymar, coupled with his undeniable top form, had been the recipient of increased praise for his improved maturity both on and off the pitch. Pleasingly, he seemed to have resolved his existential identity crisis on whether to model himself as an Evangelical do-gooder or Ibiza-frequenting party animal which, without delving into tabloid fodder, could perhaps be attributed to the rekindling of his romance with Brazilian soap actress Bruna Marquezine and enhanced custody of his son Davi, who has lived in Barcelona with his mother for over a year now.
While Neymar risks the ire of Barça fans should he have to sit out El Clasico and a Real win sees them eventually lift the title, their 2014-2015 treble and 2015-2016 domestic double will always be tied to his contribution as part of the formidable MSN – Messi, Suarez, Neymar – trio widely-regarded as one of football’s all-time best forward lines. Despite football’s often cruel nature that saw fans calling for the head of coach Luis Enrique, the architect of these conquests, recently before the eventual offering of his resignation at the end of the season, this will not be forgotten quickly.
Additionally, a chance to lift the Copa Del Rey for the third year on the trot also looms by way of next month’s final against mid-table Alavés whilst a redemptive performance against Juventus in the Champions League, a competition Barça would have been knocked out of by now were it not for his aforementioned heroics, can see the Blaugrana progress towards a chance to lift European football’s most prestigious trophy for the fifth time in just over a decade a week later in Cardiff.
As proven by Cristiano Ronaldo last time round, simultaneous club and international success is often seen as enough to receive football’s highest individual accolade. Should Neymar continue improving, demonstrate constant form and maturity in the 2017-2018 season then seal further silverware for Barça before going on to lead Brazil to World Cup glory in Russia that summer, perhaps he will then finally be crowned the game’s finest player and usher in a new era that will see him in direct competition with the next generation of hotly-tipped stars including Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Ronaldo’s Madrid teammate Gareth Bale.