Neymar's broken foot all but ends his first–and only?–season with PSG and once again brings to light the immense expectations he has been pegged to meet for club and country.
It is useful, sometimes, to be reminded that players are merely human. They may be wealthy beyond comprehension, they may be traded for staggering sums and they may have the capacity to perform extraordinary feats with a ball, but, when all is said and done, they are just flesh and bone–and bones have an unfortunate capacity to break.
The news that Neymar will be out for up to three months with a broken bone in his foot is, of course, very sad for him. It’s a major worry for Brazil, which will be desperate for him to recover in time for the World Cup. It’s annoying, too, for Paris Saint-Germain, and a warning to any club of the dangers of spending €222 million on any individual, even if it’s unlikely to make much of a difference in terms of what the club wins this season. PSG is 14 points clear in the French league and will surely win that, and it's 3-1 down after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Real Madrid and was already unlikely to recover from that.
Neymar is beginning to seem luckless. Four years ago, he suffered a broken bone in his back during Brazil’s World Cup quarterfinal win over Colombia. Another team might have been able to cope, but Brazil had invested so much in the cult of Neymar, had so subordinated the rest of the side to its biggest star, that losing him became a disaster. The tone of the Brazilian media was one almost of national mourning, while David Luiz’s brandishing of his shirt during the anthems before the semifinal was indicative of a mass hysteria. The result was the crushing 7-1 defeat to Germany, which ruthlessly capitalized as the emotional bubble burst.
Part of Brazil’s much-vaunted recovery from the 7-1, which actually only began after Dunga was dismissed as manager following defeat to Peru and a resulting group-stage exit at the Copa America Centenario in 2016, has in part been about reducing the dependency on Neymar. Dunga's successor, Tite has introduced a more modern, more system-driven style of play.
Yet the pressure on Neymar remains intense. So focused is Brazil upon him and his form that judging at this year’s Rio carnival was brought forward so as not to clash with PSG’s game at Real Madrid. It is possible this may turn out to be for the best. If Neymar is back in full training in 10 weeks or so, he should be fit and rested for the World Cup, and if Brazil performs well in friendlies without him, it might offer reassurance that there is none of the dependency that undermined the Seleção four years ago.
There’s also the heretical thought that even PSG may benefit from some time without its star. His performance in the away leg against Real Madrid was one of astonishing egotism, full of flicks and tricks and dribbles down cul-de-sacs, as though he were determined that he and he alone would win the game for PSG. It wasn’t hard to work out who midfielder Adrien Rabiot was talking about when he said after that game that, "It’s all well and good putting eight goals past Dijon, but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted."
Neymar scored four of those eight PSG goals against Dijon, adding to a persistent sense that the French league is a little too easy for him, leading to a self-indulgence. As journalist Diego Torres has revealed in a series of articles in El Pais, Neymar has fully embraced the diva lifestyle in Paris. Perhaps most damning was a comment Neymar’s agent reportedly made that he wouldn’t move to Real Madrid because they would not let him live as he did in Paris. So desperate is the club to accommodate Neymar that it staged a three-day birthday party for him. PSG coach Unai Emery, who presumably would like his star to knuckle down, was even asked along, humiliatingly, to cut the cake.
There have been regular reports of rifts between Neymar and other players. There was a spat early in the season with Edinson Cavani as they disagreed over who should take a penalty, while, more recently, Torres has reported a falling out with Kylian Mbappe, who is on loan from Monaco but will make his move permanent for €180 million in the summer.
In other circumstances, it wouldn’t matter. Stars can do what they want so long as they win. But for Neymar, this first season–this only season, perhaps–in Paris must be regarded as failure, even with his 28 goals across 30 matches. Winning the league is not enough; there also needed to be progress in the Champions League. Perhaps there still will be, but if there is, it will not have been down to him. A €222 million sum demands more than that.