Standing on the pitch at the Parc des Princes, flanked by Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi and doing a few half-hearted keepy-uppies for the wall of cameras in front of him, Neymar mustn’t have been imagining quite what would unfold over the next 12 months.
Since his unveiling at Paris Saint-Germain – following his record-breaking, Ballon D’Or-seeking £198 million transfer from Barcelona in August 2017 – the man once described as the world’s most marketable footballer has trodden a path fraught with vulnerability and disillusionment.
On the evening of that presentation in Paris, he would have returned to his hotel dreaming of Champions League glory with Les Parisiens and envisioning captaining Brazil to victory at the World Cup in July.
Neither trophy came, both slipping away in ignominious style.
In the Champions League, PSG were dumped out in the round-of-16 by a far superior Real Madrid. And to sprinkle a little salt in Neymar’s wound, Cristiano Ronaldo, who he was hoping to usurp as the world’s best footballer, took centre-stage with two goals in the first leg and one in the second.
At the World Cup in Russia, things were even worse. After recovering from ankle surgery just in time for the tournament, the Brazil star was the target of some disgracefully rough treatment in the two opening games.
It was his reaction to the challenges – including theatrical rolls and pre-meditated post-match crying – that caught international attention, however. The child-like playfulness appeared to have been sucked from Neymar’s game and replaced with infantile bad temper.
As former-national-team-striker-turned-pundit, Walter Casagrande said in a recent interview, “His behaviour was really bad. It made us a laughing stock all over the world.”
Brazil at the World Cup should make people smile, of course. But not like that.
For the rest of the summer, the rumours about the Brazilian leaving Paris just one year after he had joined grew louder by the day. And though a transfer did not come to pass, the gossip has not stopped circulating.
In a recent piece on Brazilian television, Marcelo Bechler, the journalist who first revealed that his compatriot would abandon Barcelona, said, “My feeling, my opinion, is that Neymar will leave Paris Saint-Germain and will play for Real Madrid.”
The reproaches in opinion columns and on social media have also continued, as often for his behaviour off the pitch as on it.
A post-World Cup advert that featured a one-and-a-half-minute monologue from Neymar lamenting his struggles was the source of much ridicule in Brazil.
“When I look like a brat,’ he stated, “it is not because I am spoiled but because I still haven’t learned to deal with disappointment”, before finishing by poignantly reminding us that “only those who fall can get up again.”
The ad was pointed to by some as the apex of Neymar’s father’s commercially driven decisions in regard to his son’s career. It was at best misguided and certainly did little to help his cause.
If he truly harbours ambitions of becoming the best footballer in the world, however, the ex-Santos player needs to forget about what may or may not happen in next summer’s transfer window and what is written about him in newspapers and concentrate instead on his performances for PSG.
When he is focused and enjoying himself, he is capable of genius. And if he is to repair some of the damage done to his reputation over the last year, it will be through his actions on the pitch and nothing more.
So far this season, the signs have been promising on two fronts.
Moved into a central position behind Edinson Cavani in Thomas Tuchel’s 4-2-3-1, he has taken on a new level of creative responsibility in Ligue 1 games. Much of PSG’s attacking play goes through him, even when it is the Uruguayan striker or Mbappé who end up finishing off the move.
That has not affected the Brazilian’s raw statistics though, and he already has 12 goals and 5 assists in 12 domestic matches – the best start to any season of his career – which have helped PSG to 13 wins in their opening 13 in the league.
Additionally, Brazil manager Tite ended his policy of rotating the captaincy after the Russia debacle and handed the armband permanently to his number 10.
In the Seleção’s six post-World Cup friendlies, Neymar has responded well to the added pressure, looking more composed when he comes under physical attack – as was the case in the recent game against Uruguay – and cajoling and encouraging his team-mates when necessary.
To restore his standing, though, there is a more important challenge to overcome. It is all well and good turning on the style in Ligue 1 and behaving well in international friendlies, but to make a case for the Ballon D’Or, he must perform to his best under the bright lights of the Champions League.
PSG are currently third behind Liverpool and Napoli in Group C after one win, two draws and a loss in their opening four matches. And this week they face a crunch game as Jürgen Klopp’s side travel to the Parc des Princes.
Neymar performed poorly in his side’s loss in the North-West of England and now is the time to make amends. This is the sort of occasion that the club’s Qatari owners had in mind when they parted with all that money 15 months ago. This is the stage on which he must dazzle if he is to reach his goals.
Sometimes – with all of the media circus that surrounds him, the infantile behaviour and intense glare of the marketing campaigns – it is easy to forget just how wonderful it can be to watch Neymar play.
Recapturing that elusive joy against Klopp’s men on Wednesday night would be a good way to remind us all.