It should be a fairly incontrovertible fact that Neymar is presently the best soccer player in the world. Unfortunately, the Brazilian genius is also in contention for another of the sport’s superlatives: the most unlucky. Once again, that awful luck looks set to rob him of his latest chance to show off his peerless talents in front of the whole world.
After getting subbed off during Paris Saint-Germain’s Coupe de France match against Caen on Wednesday, Neymar has been diagnosed with a strained left groin muscle. The injury, which is expected to keep him out for four weeks, means he will miss at least the first leg—and probably both—of PSG’s Champions League tie against Barcelona, which starts next week. This is now the third time in his four seasons in Paris that Neymar will miss at least one leg of the Champions League Round of 16.
As with so many of Neymar’s injuries, the cause of this most recent one was an egregious, non-sporting hack job, this time by Caen’s Steeve Yago:
In the match’s 56th minute, Yago built up a full head of steam and barged into Neymar, who had just controlled a pass. As is often the case when Neymar is fouled, Yago had no designs on contesting the ball, only to bring down the player in a painful way. In that he succeeded, and Neymar writhed on the ground, grabbing his left leg.
Yago did not receive a yellow card for the foul, most likely because the misguided referee didn’t want to send him off (the defender had already picked up a yellow in the first half). After receiving some treatment, Neymar returned to the pitch, collected another pass, and attempted to dribble past Yago, only to have the ball tackled away. Following that challenge, Neymar pulled up, holding his left leg’s inner thigh, and immediately asked to be taken out of the match. PSG went on to win the match, 1–0, thanks to a Moise Kean goal that Neymar had assisted about 10 minutes earlier. But the more important damage to PSG’s season had already been done.
This, obviously, sucks ass. It is equal parts enraging and depressing. It is enraging because the cause was the same kind of purposeless aggression Neymar is subject to probably more often than any other player in the sport, from which he does not receive appropriate protection from the referees. It is depressing because Neymar individually, and the sport as a whole, now might lose yet another opportunity for an era-defining moment from this era-defining player, all because of some meaningless, preventable clash.
In his Instagram post reacting to the news, Neymar was understandably focused on the sadness. A translation of his caption:
The sadness is great, the pain is immense and the crying is constant. Once again I will stop for a while doing what I love most in life, which is playing soccer. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable due to my style of play, because I dribble and constantly get beaten up, I don’t know if the problem is me or what I do on the field … it really saddens me. It makes me too sad to have to hear from a player, coach, commentator or whoever “he really has to be beaten,” “diver,” “whiner,” “child,” “spoiled” etc …
Honestly it saddens me and I don’t know how long I can take it, I just want to be happy playing football. NOTHING MORE
None of Neymar’s several ill-timed, tournament-ruining injuries can compare with the one that knocked him out of the 2014 World Cup, but this one is particularly disappointing. That’s because, four years after leaving Barcelona in his effort to build his own castle rather than dig the moat for Lionel Messi’s, Neymar had finally achieved some modicum of the success he had been chasing.
Last season marked the first fully healthy Champions League season of his PSG career. He made good on that good fortune by carrying the club all the way to the final. That tourney run looked to have consecrated Neymar’s status as the world’s best player, and to have formed the long-awaited bond between city, club, and player. Under new leadership from one of the very best managers in the game, Mauricio Pochettino, and with tacit agreement on a renewed contract, for once Neymar’s future in Paris looked long and happy rather than uncertain and uneasy. Signing a big new contract with PSG and then proceeding to demolish the worst Barcelona team in ages could’ve been the crowning achievement of Neymar’s Parisian career, validation to the world and probably to himself that his controversial exit from Barcelona was the right move.
Instead of that, Neymar will once again have to hope from the sidelines that his hobbled team can squeak past its Round of 16 opponents without the contributions of its best player, at which point he may be able to return and lead the club to the European Cup that will be the only true affirmation of his post-Barcelona club career. Should the Neymar-less PSG fail, as it has both of the other times it has competed in the Champions League without the Brazilian’s services, then Neymar will have seen yet another season pass him by, wasting one more of what remains of the 29-year-old’s prime years.
The stakes are simply too high for them to be consistently ruined for frivolous injuries, and if the best, most entertaining player of his generation is remembered not for images of wonder and triumph but instead for images of him in a heap on the grass, clutching a body part, weeping, it will be a damn shame.