After his latest injury, Neymar promised that he would return better than ever — a claim now boosted by apparently successful but season-ending surgery on his ankle on Friday. But his future has more questions than answers, and his past is full of controversy. So what next for the 31-year-old Brazilian? And how has he become one of the most divisive figures in the modern game?
It may not be a popular view, but it certainly can be argued that there was some nobility in his decision to leave Barcelona and join Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. There was no animosity between him and Lionel Messi, the main star back then at the Catalan club — the hug between them at the end of the 2021 Copa America deserves to be one of the game’s iconic images.
But Neymar thought that the time had come to head his own project, to be the symbol of a club that was going to take the European game by storm. Almost six years later, it is clear that things have not worked out as he intended. PSG’s star-based project seems inherently flawed. It has seen off a number of top quality coaches, and led to an impression that it might have been better for the club to follow a more organic, locally-based model making greater use of the profusion of talent in France. This point may be underlined by the rise of Kylian Mbappe, who has overtaken Neymar as the most important player in the squad.
So where will Neymar fit in on his return? Some don’t even think that he fits in at the moment. In an interview with RMC Sports radio, former France centre-forward Christophe Dugarry declared himself “very happy for PSG that Neymar is injured. I think it’s an incredible chance for [coach Christophe] Galtier. At some point he would need the courage to drop Neymar, it was the only solution.”
If there is no longer a place for him at PSG, then where might he go? He is under contract until 2027, and very few clubs could afford his wage bill, let alone the transfer fee. And most of those are in the Premier League — which has never looked like his perfect destination. In hindsight, he perhaps underestimated the physicality of the French league — and English football operates at an even higher level of intensity, with added deep lying dislike of diving.
Neymar’s interpretation of the rules of the game would come under close scrutiny. For someone usually very popular with his teammates — for Brazil at least — it is striking just how much Neymar gets under the skin of some former players. Dugarry, for example, described him as “unbearable,” and Marco Van Basten, one of the all-time great strikers, went further.
“Neymar is a real cry baby,” Van Basten told Dutch outlet Ziggo Sport last October.