The content of the news passed down from Paris Saint-Germain this week is familiar. Neymar is injured and will miss both legs of PSG's Champions League round-of-16 matchup against Manchester United. Given his broken metatarsal is likely to keep him out for at least 10 weeks, it’s unlikely he’d be available for a quarterfinal if PSG beats Man United and goes through. He may not even be ready for a potential semifinal. And so, once again, the most expensive footballer in history will be absent at a key moment.
It’s a recurring theme. The same metatarsal caused him to miss the final three months of last season, including the second leg of the Champions League last-16 defeat to Real Madrid. A fractured vertebra suffered in the World Cup quarterfinal against Colombia in 2014 meant he missed the semifinal humiliation to Germany. The way his shirt was brandished by David Luiz during the anthems suggested his absence was at least part of the reason for the hysteria that ultimately overwhelmed Brazil. At the biggest moments, Neymar repeatedly isn’t there.
Is there a reason behind the pattern? Strasbourg manager Thierry Laurey suggested there is last week after Neymar had suffered the injury in PSG’s 2-0 French Cup win over his side. Although the injury occurred as Neymar rolled his ankle, rather than as a result of a challenge, Strasbourg had been obviously physical in its treatment of the forward, who at one point responded to being fouled three times in a matter of seconds by Moataz Zemzemi by flicking the ball over his head.
"There are moments when, if you go over the limit a little bit, you have to expect that you are going to get a kick or two,” Laurey said. "I didn't ask my players to go and kick Neymar, but I understand why the players had had enough of someone who was looking to tease and taunt them a bit."
The response to that, in this instance, would be that Neymar produced the flick in response to being kicked, not the other way around. But Neymar has, at times this season–as when playing a pass with his back in the 9-0 win over Guingamp earlier this month–played in a way that some have considered disrespectful. He and PSG are too good for this league, the reasoning seems to run, but that’s no reason to highlight that and taunt less-gifted and lower-paid opponents.
"When you protect players who respect others, there's no problem," Laurey said. "For example, when you do a pass with your back, when there's no reason for it, then that's mocking. I've seen plenty of PSG players other than Neymar who are very good at 5-0 up, but when it's 0-0 they don't show off like that.”
But it’s not as straightforward as Neymar being extravagantly gifted and opponents reacting to his occasional self-indulgence. (Not that that’s a straightforward issue: where, after all, is the line? At what point does virtuosity become mockery?) Neymar doesn’t just rile opponents; he is easily riled himself.
At the Copa Libertadores in Argentina in 2011, Brazil came up against a robust Paraguay side in both its group and in the quarterfinal. In both, he found himself up against experienced fullback Dario Veron. In Brazil, Neymar was already feted by many as the greatest talent since Pele, and was protected by referees, perhaps over-protected. Faced with the uncompromising Veron, finding his histrionics didn’t bring free kicks for his side or cards for his opponent, Neymar wilted. Paraguay drew both games, and went through to the semifinals on penalties.
Neymar was 19, and the assumption then was that he would learn. He has not. Four years later, in a Copa America group game against Colombia, he lost his temper to the extent he was sent off in a fracas after the final whistle and then launched a tirade of abuse at the referee, earning him a four-game ban. When Brazil again went out on penalties to Paraguay in the quarterfinal, Neymar wasn’t there. Only at Barcelona, when he was one star in a great constellation and four years he permitted himself to submit to the system, has Neymar really lived up to his talent. In Paris, all the old self-indulgence has returned.
All skillful players have to deal with physical treatment. Learning how to deal with that is part of the game. Obviously, no player deserves to be injured and skillful players deserve protection. Equally obvious is that Neymar has suffered some appalling luck when it comes to the timing of his injuries. But at the same time, it may be worth Neymar asking himself just why this sort of thing keeps on happening to him.