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Soccer

Neymar Is Finally The Best Player In The World

Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar (C) is challenged by Istanbul Basaksehir's Turkish midfielder Mahmut Tekdemir (back) during the UEFA Champions League group H football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Istanbul Basaksehir FK at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, on December 9, 2020.
Photo by Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

Neymar is unlimited. I watched Paris Saint-Germain dismantle Istanbul Basaksehir in the Champions League on Wednesday, and then watched and rewatched the following individual highlight compilation of the demolition job’s primary architect, and the thought that kept coming to my mind with every touch, dribble, pass, shot, or feint was that Neymar is unlimited.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8YiAxmlRWE

Neymar is unlimited because there’s not a thing he can’t do, and do with supreme excellence, in attacking play. He runs, both with and without the ball, with a speed and power and agility that few defenses can keep track of, let alone keep up with. When in possession of the ball, he has exactly that: possession. The ball is his, he does with it exactly, precisely what he wants, and it obeys. He moves it with total control, whether between his own feet (Basaksehir often defended Neymar with three players at a time, and still he completed five of 10 dribbles) or between his opponent’s feet (lord almighty, that nutmeg touch on his first goal) or to his teammates’ feet (his through balls are like a pool pro’s trick shots). Neymar was involved in all five PSG goals, scoring three, winning the penalty for another, and creating the other with a dribble and hockey assist. As rappers are often fond of mentioning, there are those who do what they want and those who do what they can. Neymar is decidedly the former.

And it’s not just what Neymar can do that makes the place he’s in right now so special. It’s also how he does it. Neymar has long been the game’s premier showman. As much as he plays to win, to advance himself and the ball into the most dangerous areas of the pitch where goals are created and scored, he also plays to entertain, to impress, to demonstrate how great he is and how much joy that greatness brings him and to use his greatness to share joy with those watching.

Each touch of his has a flair and inventiveness and beauty and intentionality that is unmistakably Neymar. It’s almost postmodernist in a way. He uses his skills to beat his opponents, but he does so in a self-consciously flashy way, winking at the fact that he knows he’s being watched and that he’s trying to “win” a game with the spectators, too. Everything Neymar does is a choice, because Neymar can do anything. That he so consistently chooses to do things that enthrall and delight I think tells us something about the way he sees the game.

Neymar’s obsession with winning the metagame, the one between players and those watching, has probably conditioned not just how he plays, but where he has taken his career. He must have known that, from a narrative perspective, he would not be able to achieve the recognition he so covets as the world’s best while playing alongside the then- and probably all-time-best, Lionel Messi, in Barcelona. To earn that title, as symbolized by the Ballon d’Or he’s expressly pined for, he’d have to start a new story, one where he was the unmistakable protagonist. He has found that at PSG, where he is empowered to do everything he wants, and the result is entrancing.

Because PSG is a nouvelle riche club from a non-elite league whose money is stained with blood and oil, and because Neymar is young, handsome, fun-loving, ambitious, and insouciant—all traits stuffy traditionalists love to hate—the Brazilian has struggled to gain the acclaim his talents deserve during his time in Paris. That can no longer be the case—not after his dominant run to the Champions League final last season and Messi’s continued senescence. (Sadly, Messi has increasingly become a player who merely does what he can.) Neymar is currently the best player in the world, hands down. Rejoice in this, and make sure to luxuriate in performances like Wednesday’s, because in a real sense, he’s doing it for you.