Welcome to World Class: Neymar

Dec 28, 2020, 10:00 AM GMT
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Once upon a time, from the late 1970s until the late 2000s, any promising Brazilian forward would usually be burdened with being labelled the ‘new Pele’.

For decades, Brazil had been seeking a successor to the three-time World Cup winner, who defined an era. Other superstar Brazilians have come and gone, but Neymar is the one who has finally put the search to bed since his emergence around 10 years ago.

Ronaldo was more explosive, but injuries crippled his potential, breaking his career almost into two isolated four-year chunks, while he won surprisingly little at club level. Meanwhile, Ronaldinho’s spell at true world class status lasted only a handful of seasons.

Others, like Adriano or Robinho, showed promise before fading without much elite level impact.

All four of those examples were arguably finished or close to it by the time they reached the age Neymar is right now. In stark contrast, Neymar himself is as good as he’s ever been, a world class left forward, and still has it in him to get even better before he calls it a day.

As a teenager, Neymar helped Santos win the Copa Libertadores for the first time since the days of Pele nearly 50 years prior. Before that, Brazil fans were clamouring for him to go the 2010 World Cup at 18. Such was his obvious talent from a young age, Real Madrid had wanted to sign him at 14, eyeing an opportunity to try and make him their own version of Lionel Messi.

Brazilian football star Neymar, of Santo
Neymar was on the edge of world class as a teenager | MAURICIO LIMA/Getty Images

Having won the Puskas Award in 2011 and played against Barcelona in that year’s FIFA Club World Cup, Neymar has been in world class territory pretty much ever since he finally made the switch to Europe in the summer of 2013 and landed at Camp Nou.

He took some time to find his feet, but the 2014/15 season underlined what Neymar was about. He scored 39 times in all competitions as Barca won the Champions League as part of a historic second treble, forming one of all-time great attacking trios alongside Messi and Luis Suarez.

Neymar was equally devastating the following year as Barca retained two thirds of that treble to win a domestic double and his status among the world’s best for what is now an extended period is reflected in five Ballon d‘Or nominations since 2014, including two top three finishes.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar Jr
Neymar has regularly been a Ballon d'Or nominee | Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

He gambled on himself in 2017 when Paris Saint-Germain wanted to trigger his €222m release clause to make him the most expensive player of all time. Keen to step out of Messi’s shadow after four years, Neymar took the plunge to try and get PSG over the line in the Champions League.

Continued domestic dominance hasn’t been an issue – Neymar has won two French trebles and three Ligue 1 titles overall – while PSG went further than ever in Europe in 2019/20. He played a decisive role on that journey to the Champions League final and in 2020/21 has become the first player in the competition’s history to score 20 or more goals with two different clubs.

With Brazil, Neymar is hurtling towards Pele’s all-time goal record. He moved ahead of Ronaldo this year and will catch Pele to set a new record before too long. There has been criticism that a significant amount of his international goals have come in friendlies, but Pele also inflated his tally in that way, while Neymar proportionally scores about as often in competitive game – that he has played in far more friendlies has resulted in the slightly misleading skew in his numbers.

Neymar Jr
Neymar will overtake Pele as Brazil's all-time top scorer | Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images

Injury has significantly impacted Neymar’s time at PSG, while the coronavirus pandemic ended the 2019/20 season in France prematurely because the campaign was abandoned. But his numbers are astonishing all the same – close to a goal per game in the league and 79 in 97 overall at the time of writing. More than 45 assists takes his goal involvement as a PSG player to well over one per game.

Huge talent has long made Neymar a target for aggressive defenders. And while he has developed an occasionally unsavoury reputation for play-acting, it is the often rough treatment he gets that has limited his impact. That doesn’t affect PSG too much domestically when he is ruled out, but Neymar was recovering from a broken foot when the French giants were dumped out of the Champions League by an understrength Manchester United in March 2019, for example.

It is equally probably no coincidence that Brazil crumbled at the 2014 World Cup on home soil when Neymar was kicked out of the tournament with a fractured spine.

When he is fit and firing, he has shown he can be unplayable.

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Neymar has arguably underachieved but is unplayable at his best | FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

In particular, Neymar was the difference when Barcelona completed an unthinkable aggregate comeback against PSG in the Champions League in 2017, perhaps the night that the French realised they needed him to realise their lofty ambitions in Europe.

He has lost his way a little at times since then, but 2020 and PSG’s run in the Champions League showed things are far from over. There will soon be a power vacuum at the very top of the game with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi nearing the end of their respective careers. After everything, Neymar is still good enough and has the time left in his own career to fill it.

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