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Neymar’s once joyful talent risks being mangled by the PSG project

·5 min read

Who weeps for Neymar? Not many people. Except perhaps Neymar himself, who cries a lot and not always out of sadness. A quick internet search of “Neymar tears” reveals 4.73 million hits, from Brazil tears to Barça tears, to brave tears, sad tears, tears as Neymar greets [insert celebrity friend], to full, cinematic hot salty snot-washing tears. So, so many tears.

The good news is you can also get a more cheering 18 million hits for “Neymar happy”: cue for a series of wonderful beaming grins and winks and million-dollar smiles. Some people have that glow about them. I once saw a woman faint in an airport departure hall after coming unexpectedly face to face with Bill Clinton – please, no comments – who has the same sense of human event glamour. Clinton just kind of giggled, a laugh of recognition – yes siree, ma’am, that’s what I do – as his victim was led away.

Neymar has this quality too: presence, destiny, a kind of light. Or at least he had it. Because something is up. And the day is starting to dim a little.

Related: Jesus completes Manchester City fightback to sink PSG and seal top spot

The world’s longest-serving next-best footballer turns 30 in three months. He was in Manchester on Wednesday night with Paris Saint-Germain, one third of the costliest, most celebrified attack ever seen on a football pitch. It wasn’t pretty. He was listless and blunt, spending large parts of the evening mooching about the pitch like a man looking for his keys in a field.

It is of course fashionable to dislike Neymar, to accuse this consistently brilliant footballer of theatrics, flashiness and all the rest. But for anyone who has loved watching him play, the idea that spark might be waning is a genuine note of sadness.

There were glimpses at the Etihad. When he moves with purpose Neymar still looks like he’s made of candyfloss and millefeuille pastry, floating about in unicorn-down boots. He made a nice decoy run for the PSG goal. There was one wild slaloming run, capped with an appalling finish into the blue stanchion pole to the side of the goal.

Mainly he looked reined in, cast as a support act when he has got so used to driving the entire creative end of his club and national teams. An overlooked fact: Neymar has often done this very well for PSG and Brazil in big games. His best chance to win the Champions League as chief creative star came and went two summers ago under Thomas Tuchel, but Neymar was excellent leading up to the final. Had Kylian Mbappé buried one key sitter against Bayern Munich we might have reached a different point in that arc.

Instead this has been a first real dead spell. Neymar has almost 200 goals in European club football. He hasn’t scored in the Champions League for a year. It doesn’t help that he is playing in a jerry-built celebrity pseudo-team. Watching Messi in Manchester was like catching brief glimpses of a street entertainer on a busy pavement, a one-man Lionel Messi tribute act.

A downhearted Neymar after PSG’s defeat at Manchester City.
A downhearted Neymar after PSG’s defeat at Manchester City. Photograph: Matt West/Shutterstock

There is a plan here, starting positions and basic roles. But at times you could have thrown a mournful comfort blanket over those three star attackers as they wandered about various untended parts of the pitch.

It is easy to worry a little for Neymar in the middle of this. There is a tendency to assume that because footballers are wealthy and famous they are immune from normal human pain and anxiety, that their suffering has no meaning. But Neymar has struggled with Being Neymar, with the relentlessness of the life that has been made for him.

This is a man who has spent almost all of his career as the next in line, an oddly draining status as other stars rise, as the players ahead of you refuse to decline until your own mortality has begun to bite. Neymar may not have missed his window yet. But the real sweet spot, his shot at ultimacy, is flattening out.

Related: Bayern Munich win Champions League as Kingsley Coman header sinks PSG

What will his legacy be? Right now his key role is as a pawn of big football money. There is a toxic flow chart you can draw, from Neymar’s absurd, transgressive £200m move to PSG, through the self-destruction at Barcelona, the smart, hedge-funder’s play at Liverpool, the distorted career paths and spending splurges, ripples that are still circulating.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. This is a footballer whose talent is, at bottom, a joyful thing. I saw Neymar live for the first time at the Arena São Paulo in 2014. He didn’t have a great game. But we all left cooing over what a joy he was in the flesh, this lovely little sprite made from sherbet and feathers. Seven years on there he was again, a parable of talent mangled through the machinery of big sport, and wreathed in a kind of sadness as he wandered across the grass in east Manchester. Look how they massacred my boy.

There are, of course, choices in this, and Neymar has been drinking from a strange cup. The PSG project, founded in nation-state PR ambitions, is one of those forces working away at the edge of this sport, stretching its limits, its robustness.

There is a sense in Paris now that Zinedine Zidane is the man to solve this team, that only Zizou truly knows how to make the postmodern galáctico team function. That may be the case. Talent trumps everything in the end. Load enough of it into the chamber and you’re bound to hit something.

But from Super Leagues to sport as a celebrity vehicle that model will ultimately do for those sharp edges, the part that keeps this shared obsession as a thing of play, jeopardy and human drama. Sport is resilient. But there is something sickly about the direction of travel; and a sense, even in the glare of centre stage, that something will be lost along the way.

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