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Neymar To Become The Latest And Saddest Passenger On The Saudi Gravy Train

Neymar Jr of PSG looks on during the pre-season friendly match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and FC Internazionale Milano at the Japan National Stadium on August 1, 2023 in Tokyo, Japan.
Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

The latest news has it that Neymar is on the verge of officially participating in soccer's hottest, lamest trend: leaving Europe to play in Saudi Arabia. The numbers, as we've come to expect, are obscene. A reported €90 million transfer fee is headed toward Paris Saint-Germain to procure Neymar's services, while he is set to earn something like €150 million annually over the course of a two-year contract with Al Hilal, the team that tried but mercifully failed to take Lionel Messi into the desert. With this, we reach the ostensible end of one of the more remarkable, disappointing, misunderstood careers in the game's history.

Let's just start here, since any conversation about the Brazilian inevitably winds up here anyway, about whether or not his career has been a failure. While there have definitely been major disappointments along the path, I'd argue that, in contrast to the going notion about him, on the whole his career has in no way been a failure.

On one hand, the most popular version of the story told about Neymar and the trajectory of his playing career—the one that presents it as at first promising, occasionally thrilling, but ultimately deficient—is really dumb. There is a perverse, unmistakable glee you hear in the voices of so many when they talk about all of Neymar's perceived failures and misfortunes. Neymar was an egomaniac, a coward, a moron to leave Barcelona, one of his skeptics might say, and it's no surprise that he never won the Champions League or the Ballon d'Or he was obsessed with once he left Messi's side. Of course, to someone less reflexively offended by a player's indifference to Europe's established hierarchy, it's easy to see how Neymar's reasons for wanting out at Barça, and for going to the disreputably nouveau riche PSG, were perfectly valid. His starring but delimited role as Messi's squire was never going to allow him the freedom to become the best player he could be, the player he did in fact become over the course of his time in France. If anything his decision to leave his comfort zone in search of self-actualization only demonstrated his courage and determination to define himself on his own terms.

Granted, praise for the courage and determination Neymar has displayed in furtherance of his athletic career threatens to veer into praise about the kind of man he is, which does tread into dangerous waters. Neymar has been accused of some reprehensible behavior over the years, notably two sexual assault accusations, one in 2019 and another that emerged in 2021. His behavior during and in the aftermath of both incidents was at the very least deeply gross, even if the evidence that came out related to the more grave accusation in 2019 did not appear to support the full extent of what was alleged before the criminal justice system decided not to bring charges against him.

Nevertheless, it's important to clarify that the person we see on the field or in advertisements, no matter how athletically admirable, is not necessarily the same as the person who exists beyond the spotlight. That conflation between good deeds on the field and a good person off of it is the origin of much of what is dangerous about godding up athletes. By the same token, if there is to be anything of broader socio-cultural importance to glean from sports and the people in it, and if athletes and their exploits can be said to represent anything bigger than the individuals who perform them, then it must lie in figuring out how to excise what is transcendent from what must be denounced. This isn't about liking Neymar as a person, but it is about learning about what his career has to teach.

OK, the skeptic might retort, but you can't deny that Neymar has always been a diva, constantly throwing himself to the ground at the slightest touch with all the grace of a fatally wounded henchman in a B-movie, constantly picking up "convenient" injuries that saw him flying back to Brazil just in time for Carnival or his sister's birthday parties, constantly behaving on the pitch with a petulance that makes him impossible to root for. Let's put aside the fact that complaining about diving in 2023 is so incredibly tired. I've always found it odd that Neymar in particular is portrayed as this incorrigible embellisher of contact when he is probably the most fouled player in Europe, and almost all of the major injuries he's suffered have come from excessively strong tackles. Neymar has routinely gotten the shit kicked out of him wherever he's played; the fact that he, unlike Messi, has the temerity to express his frustration with this treatment instead of just ignoring it does not speak poorly of Neymar.

Look, you can apologize for Neymar's antics all you like, our imagined Neymar hater might reply, but the facts are clear: Neymar was heralded as the next big thing, the kid destined to finally snatch away the crown Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo spent a decade vying with each other for, the one to return Brazil to glory as his forbears all had. And by any objective measure Neymar has failed. He was never the best player in the world, never even the best player on his club team, he never won the Ballon d'Or, never brought PSG greatness, and never won the World Cup. Now, on the precipice of the end of his career as a top-level player, all he has to show for himself are some trophies he won as Messi's sidekick, an appalling injury record that kept him out of half of PSG's matches since he signed, and a measly two goals scored in the Champions League knockout rounds. Neymar will go down in history as an overhyped, brittle, eye-catching but substantively empty player who cared about little more than the size of the checks going into his bank account.

This is the part of the anti-Neymar case I find most distasteful. I get that soccer is largely thought of as a business, and the logic of business is the logic of numbers, of objectivity, of efficiency, of value, of the maximization of assets and the discarding of liabilities. It's just that this logic is the exact opposite of what I find compelling about the game.

That kind of cold, reductive thinking has always been around, but I do think it's taken an even firmer grip on the way the sport is thought about and discussed than before. Maybe it's because of all the finance and venture capital guys who've wormed their way into the game over the past decade or so, applying the soulless vision of the world that built their fortunes to the game, leading fans to consider that vision somehow more serious, objective, and savvy than the simpler affection for a cool pass, dribble, or goal. Maybe it's the video games that turn gamers into players, yes, but also into managers and sporting directors, who assess players via one number that describes their overall rating and another that caps their potential, who see the game from the perspective of the infallible coach who constructs a perfectly designed tactical system and cycles through the interchangeable parts at their disposal, parts that double as speculative assets where the goal is to buy low and pump up and sell high and do it all over again until you are rich and happy. Maybe it's the analytical revolution that has fans replacing feelings, tastes, and impressions about what makes a player or team cool and good in exchange for misapplied, context-shorn statistics that purport to describe the game as if it were a physics equation.

Whatever the reason, it seems to me that soccer fans are quick to define a player based on everything except what that player has and can do on an actual field, with an actual ball, as seen with your actual eyes. And to define Neymar by anything other than the visceral, holistic experience of watching him play is to entirely miss the point.

I could sit here and recount his exceptional numbers to justify my contention that he has been one of the very best players of our time, but no statistic can capture even a modicum of what it's like to see the most creative, aesthetically stunning player I've ever seen take the ball and weave his way down the pitch, inventing new solutions to problems as they arise, at all times looking to incorporate his teammates into his creative process. Neymar, even more so than the maniacally efficient Messi, is this age's consummate showman, a true artist in the Ronaldinho, Garrincha mold, whose play is an expression of himself and his interests and passions and talents, offered to the crowd for their delight and appreciation. Ronaldinho and Garrincha too were often ridiculed for their approach to the game toward the ends of their careers, saddled with the perception that they never took their gift seriously enough, that they never did or won as much as their monumental skills promised. History has redeemed the careers of both Ronaldinho and Garrincha, who today are treated with the reverence their play always deserved, now that wrongheaded conceptions of them as raw materials insufficiently exploited has given way to a clear view of who and what they actually were, and the awesome things they actually did.

Hopefully, Neymar is in for a similar reappraisal once his career is over. I believe it will happen. For one thing, he has already left us hours and hours of some of the most captivating footage ever recorded of what a person is capable of doing with a ball, a pair of feet, and an imagination. Those images, and the feelings they engendered when performed live and will continue to on replay, will last long after Neymar hangs up his boots and with them those pesky expectations. If he never gains the respect of the uptight crowd who look down their bigoted noses at that poor black boy from Brazil who did it his way instead of theirs, then he can at least rest easy knowing he's already earned the love of many more people who look like him, or come from places like his, or at the very least can appreciate genius and artistry exhibited on its creator's own terms. And I don't even think Neymar is totally done with us. The time spent in Saudi Arabia is sure to be a black hole in his career, but at 31 years of age, with a two-year contract with Al Hilal, and with the World Cup coming in only three years, I bet we'll see Neymar again in competitions that matter.

No, there's little doubt in my mind that Neymar's playing days, if not his character, will be widely and cherished eventually. The only real disappointment of his career is that some unfortunate injuries and bounces of the ball mean he hasn't yet achieved it all, the concrete and the ineffable, together which would've built his statue too high to ever be denied.

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