Farewell Neymar: The best of us mere mortals but always overshadowed by Messi and Ronaldo

Daniel Edwards
Neymar signs for Saudi Pro League side Al Hilal

Neymar signs for Al Hilal

The departure of Neymar from mainland European football to Al Hilal is arguably Saudi Arabian football’s biggest coup yet; but questions of what might have been continue to linger for the man branded the heir to the Messi and Ronaldo throne.

It is truly the end of an era. In the space of only a few months, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi departed European football, seemingly for good, packing up and taking with them 12 of the last 14 Ballon d’Or crowns and more than 1600 goals scored at the highest level of the game over two glorious decades.

And now, perhaps most surprising of all, the man widely anointed as the successor to that deadly duo at the sport’s pinnacle has also cashed in his chips. Five years Messi’s junior at 31, Neymar has drawn the curtain on his career amongst the elite.

Pele comparisons

He may be back some day, as unlikely as it may appear, once his glittering Al Hilal contract concludes in 2025, but for now he has chosen Saudi riches over continuing to compete at the top with all the demands and sacrifices that entails.

And while he has achieved more than most footballers can even dream of, the question ‘what might have been’ will forever hang over his head.

For someone marked for greatness almost as soon as he kicked a ball in anger for the first time, this could not have been part of the plan. Recall the hype and hysteria generated when at the tender age of 17 Neymar first broke through in the Santos system and took Brazilian football by storm, earning comparisons to a teenaged Pele.

In 2011, he dragged Santos to Copa Libertadores glory over Penarol, their first victory in South America’s venerable club competition since those halcyon Pele days almost 50 years earlier.

It appeared that nothing would stop Neymar from fulfilling his destiny, as even against a backdrop of messy court cases and in the grip of a sprawling, grasping entourage headed by father Neymar Sr. – a constant, shadowy presence in his son’s career. He adapted effortlessly to life at Barcelona and, in Messi, found a footballing soulmate both on and off the field.

With the World Cup heading to his own Brazil in 2014 the stage was set for him to enter the nation’s pantheon of greats while still barely out of his teenage years, the natural prelude to years of dominance and Ballon d’Or wins.

What might have been for Neymar

Instead, that tournament merely gave a glimpse of what was to come. After lighting up Brazil in the early rounds Neymar was forced out through Camilo Zuniga’s back-breaking tackle in the quarter-final and could only watch as the Selecao suffered the greatest humiliation in their history against Germany in the semifinals rout. The tone for his international career had been set.

The forward time and again put his body on the line for Brazil but to no avail, experiencing almost nothing but disappointment as successive World Cups and even Copas America slipped through his fingers. Injury, untimely slumps in form or even pure bad luck; fate seemed to be conspiring against Neymar in a way that ultimately clouded not just his Brazil tenure but his career as a whole.

The rocky road to Al Hilal

That misfortune was only compounded by the in retrospect catastrophic decision to turn his back on Barca for Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. Few transfers of such high profile can be said to have inflicted critical damage on all the parties concerned, but that move not only crippled both the buying and selling clubs but also sent Neymar down the long, rocky road which ended in Saudi Arabia.

The player ostensibly chose Paris as the perfect destination in which to emerge from Messi’s shadow. Instead, the pressure of leading the team from the front buckled him. His numbers at Parc des Princes were consistent, but again physical problems and an inability to make it happen when most needed stopped Neymar from ever reaching his full potential after 2017.

As the frustrations, the failures and the jeers built up, he looked less and less like that fun-loving kid from the streets of Sao Paulo whose two goals were to conquer the football world and have a great time doing it. For all his ability, and his stellar record, the pressure to do even more just proved too much.

What might have been? Again that question looms large. If Zuniga’s knee had not shattered his vertebra on the brink of triumph. If he had been able to march into the 2018 World Cup unencumbered by injury.

If, last year, he and an electric Brazil team – without a shadow of a doubt the best they have fielded since at least 2002 – had slipped past Croatia, they could have set up a dream clash with Messi and Argentina.

If he could have held out in the face of PSG’s interest, keeping intact that sparkling Barca team instead of stumbling into one of the least harmonious club atmospheres in the entire game.

If just a handful of those pivotal moments had gone his way, we would perhaps be sitting here right now saluting one of the greatest players of his generation.

Overshadowed by superhumans Messi and Ronaldo

Easy-going and upbeat even at the worst of times, Neymar will surely have few regrets. He spent more than 10 years among the planet’s top stars and at his best could match even Messi and Ronaldo, something only a precious few can claim. His record as Brazil’s highest-ever goalscorer (he needs one more to surpass Pele) is likely to stand for many years to come and is a startling feat in such a distinguished team. To put it in perspective, not one of his current team-mates sits within 50 goals of that mark.

If anything his achievements only magnify how extraordinary that pair was: we forget that two decades of sustained brilliance is an anomaly in world football for one player, let alone two, and that we will likely never see their ilk again. Neymar was the best of us mere mortals – brilliant, but ultimately overshadowed by super-humans.

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