When dreams collide with reality; when life reaches a daunting crossroads; when we have to decide if we want to be or make history.
Right now Neymar is at a crossroads.
A 21st century football brand fueled by infinite promise; a nouveau riche social, commercial and cultural phenomenon; a superstar who is no stranger to the scrutiny of the public eye.
However, when it comes to the bright lights of European football’s biggest stage, the Champions League, he is stuck in a perpetual cycle of repetition.
A one-time winner, yes, but for some, with the help of their extremely skilled South American counterparts, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez, in Barcelona’s once famous ‘MSN’ triumvirate.
On two occasions misfortune has conspired to subvert the Brazilian prodigy’s chances of taking the competition by the scruff of the neck in the red and blue colors of Paris Saint-Germain.
So here we are in 2020. Is it third time lucky? Is this Neymar’s moment of truth?
Now three games stand between the “red pill” of European illustration or the “blue pill” of another Wikipedia footnote by a 28-year-old.
“This is the year you can really redeem yourself […] These three games can change everything […] I don’t think I’ll get another chance like this,” Brazilian soccer journalist Fernando Kallás told CNN Sport.
Since planting their flag on the cobbled streets of Paris in June 2011, PSG’s Qatari investors have made no secret of their ultimate goal: continental supremacy.
At the national level it has been an era defined by relentless dominance. Seven top-flight leagues and five French cups, including four trebles in six seasons.
But if Europe is a combination lock, they’ve been searching endlessly for the locksmith with the elusive key. Seven times they have tried and failed to crack the complex code, each failure more painful and bitter than the last.
“A specific timeline was set and once you get past that timeline every season, PSG seem to be getting further and further away, so there’s a weight of history that’s affecting them,” explains the French football expert Jonathan Johnson.
The world record signing of Neymar from Barcelona in August 2017, for a still incredible $263 million, was intended to deliver this knight in shining armour.
He is no longer the backup singer to Messi and Suárez, but is now the best performer with a license to thrill and become the best in the world.
For some it was a game changer; for Kallás it remains “the biggest mistake in the history of sport”.
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Reflecting last week on the three years since his transfer, the striker wrote that “(these) came with a lot of knowledge. I have experienced moments of joy and others complicated.”
Their bond with fans in the city of love has rippled across the gamut of Facebook relationship statuses: from “married” to “separated” to “It’s complicated.”
All with the appeal of a former lover in Catalonia that remains in the background.
A long, but ultimately unsuccessful, serenade last summer to lure the Brazilian to Camp Nou brought simmering tensions to a boil in Paris.
The love-hate dynamic surrounding the polarizing figure was perhaps best encapsulated in the superstar’s first league appearance of the 2019-20 season.
Booed relentlessly for 90 minutes before unleashing a sublime bicycle kick that won the match at the very death – half the opposition were enthralled; the other half enraged.
Kallás paints a picture of a jury similarly split down the middle along generational lines in Brazil: young suitors who adore “the image, the smile, the tattoos” contrast with the old guard who “are really worried about him “.
The Cold War in Paris has since thawed, along with the realization that going back to the future is not, for now, an imminent prospect.
“He has shown on and off the pitch that he is committed to the project […] He really has to rise to the challenge of being a PSG player and achieve something, especially in the Champions League, in Paris,” says Johnson.
While a new leaf may have been turned on the pitch, questions remain outside.
Neymar’s personal life has, at times, borne the stamp of an exciting soap opera, full of intrigue, and all supported by an ensemble cast.
He was acquitted of a crime last year after a Brazilian model accused the former Brazil captain of rape and assault.
This year he was forced to miss a league game through injury, two days after throwing a lavish birthday party in a Paris nightclub.
Those who want to succeed despair: Will the boy ever become a man?
“In Brazil we have an expression that says he (Neymar) is an endless promise […] What is “Menino Neymar” (“Baby Neymar”) – He is not a boy […] It has to be in reality […] He has to grow,” says Kallás, who has followed the Brazilian’s trials and tribulations on and off the pitch.
“When he’s on the pitch, he does it […] I’ve never, ever heard a complaint from a coach or another player about his attitude in training, in the dressing room.”
COPA90: Retro games with Neymar
– Source: COPA90
And for all the goals, assists and silverware so far, history and biology have dealt a cruel hand to the twinkling star, with him not given the chance to have his say at the business end of the club competition elite of European football.
Seasons cut short by injuries in 2018 and 2019 coincided with dramatic situations for PSG from the round of 16 at the hands of Real Madrid and Manchester United respectively.
“That’s what makes the rest of this campaign so important and why it’s going to be under such close scrutiny,” Johnson says.
The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly, and perhaps favorably for PSG, changed the dynamics of this year’s tournament final.
Gone are the two-legged knockout affairs from the quarter-final stages onwards, replaced by one-legged shootouts, all inside the Lisbon bubble.
Without the missing shooter Edinson Cavani and the recently discharged Kylian Mbappé, the ground is Neymar’s.
First, the surprise package of Atalanta awaits them in the quarter-finals; Then a possible matchup with the battle hardened Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals and then who knows in a final that will take it all.
While progress in the competition, according to Johnson, “would really give the (Qatar) project the shot in the arm it needs after a few years of massive disappointment”, for Kallás, this month could be the start of a career that defines two years for the individual at the heart of the narrative.
With the Brazilian’s contract expiring in 2022 and a World Cup in Qatar that year likely to be his last in a Brazil shirt, it’s simply make or break.
“We always say, ‘This is going to be the year. No, this will be the year. No, this will be the year” […] He’s 28, he should be in the prime of his career, but he’s not. […] It’s his last chance.”
The soap opera has had its unexpected plot twists, its moments of craziness and its bursts of brilliance. The script for its main ending is now in the hands of its main protagonist.