How the mighty have fallen: Brazil is once more Stefan Zweig's country of the future, hamstrung by a political crisis and the 'Trump of the tropics', and crippled by enduring social inequality. In the wake of the 2016 Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's postcard city is all but bankrupt, warped in a web of infinite corruption and quintessential Carioca malfunctioning.
Even the stock of Brazilian football has fallen considerably: at the World Cup in Russia, the weight of history proved too much for Brazil again. The yellow shirt and the memories of Pele, Garrincha, Zagallo and other ageless stars attached to it burdened Brazil's players. Even the team's lodestar could not guide the five-times world champions past an ingenious Belgium and the fingertips of Thibaut Courtois. Neymar fell in Kazan, the graveyard of the great.
Russia was supposed to have been Neymar's World Cup, who, at 26, was at the peak of his physical powers, but instead he left an indelible mark on the global conscience with his histrionics and tantrums, almost rendering him a play-actor who belonged on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre. Except, Neymar oversold himself. As a faux diva, he rapidly became a caricature.
A year on and Neymar's repute has nosedived even further. In the public's mind, he is no longer a caricature but simply an outcast, spat out viciously by Paris Saint-Germain fans in the season's curtain raiser against Nimes and alienated back home. In a callous environment where president Jair Bolsonaro is intent on pushing the poor, Brazilians disagree about almost everything, except Neymar. During the recent Copa America, cab drivers in Sao Paulo and esteemed lawyers in Rio de Janeiro found common ground in their dislike for Brazil's talisman. They argued about the level of his game, but above all, they didn't take him seriously. The consensus was simple: he is a spoiled brat, an eternal adolescent or in a Portuguese 'um moleque' (a young kid, a person without character or integrity). Yet talk to those closer to him " players at FC Barcelona, the back room staff of Brazil " and they are adamant: Neymar is a popular figures in the dressing room.
The vox populi levels a serious accusation at Neymar's address, one that merits reflection. Amid all the hysteria and off-field misdemeanor, it is easy to forget that Neymar is a superb player. To date, he has 226 goals and 140 assists in 378 club games to his name, and 60 goals in 97 international matches, but those numbers do not accurately reflect his undisputed talent, a combination of natural nimbleness in his movements, the velocity of his thinking and the consummate Brazilian skill " improvisation. Yet those attributes haven't been enough to eclipse the Portuguese-Argentine duopoly that has dominated the global game in the past decade. In the celestial company of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the accomplished Neymar is, at best, human.
In 2017, he moved from Barcelona to PSG to step out of Messi's shadow in a transfer that was interpreted as a vulgar money-making exercise which left observers and football at large grappling with the moral dilemma of how the preposterous had become the norm, because that is what a fee of $263 million for a football player is after all " but economic considerations apart Neymar also left Catalonia with the idea of winning the Ballon d'Or, a trophy Brazilian players obsess over.
In Paris, Neymar has failed to ignite. The league title was always a formality for the Qatari-owned club informed by the 'idÃ©e fixe' of conquering the European Cup. Neymar was tasked to remedy PSG's parody status in Europe, but it left him in the unenviable position of having to shine and excel in a very select number of games, something which injuries ultimately prevented.
And so, at 27, Neymar 's career is in grave peril. He is not Ronaldinho " who veered towards the nightlife in the latter stages of his career, forgoing any professional obligations " but it is imperative for Neymar to shed the 'Jr' tag or run the risk of destroying his career. He has been indulged by his environment for too long " at Santos, Barcelona, PSG and the Brazil national team.
In part, Neymar " like all of us " is a product of his surroundings. He is also an excess.
He seems to have a disregard for the rules. It's easy to imagine Neymar, all tattooed and with his obscene diamond earrings, walking around in Barra da Tijuca, a nouveau riche hangout in Rio de Janeiro, bossing around everyone. He is a rich superstar in command. It is what rich people around Rio's zona sul and around the world do " bend the rules. In football, the examples of players, agents, federations and media houses doing so are legio. So far, Neymar has largely gotten away with it all " the accusations of rape and tax evasion, the decadent partying, losing the captaincy in the national team, punching a fan, not showing up for practice. The list of wrongdoing is endless.
Then there is Neymar Sr. He pops up here and there " in New Jersey, in Sochi " the only family member of a player staying in Brazil's team hotel during the World Cup " and spreads the tentacles of his nefarious ways. It is often difficult to gauge who takes the final decisions in the Neymar camp, but there is little doubt that Neymar's father has been guilty in the infantilization of his son and allowing Neymar's worst personality traits to surface. Worse, in the hands of his father, Neymar seems to have become a marketing tool driven by market forces. He is a money-tree and a commodity. The player still styles himself as Neymar Jr, but wherever he goes next, Neymar must lose that tag to restore his reputation and focus again on what he does best " playing football " or risk losing it all.