Neymar: Where is the love?
The player ratings in French sports daily l’Equipe, following PSG’s shock home Coupe de la Ligue quarter final defeat to Guingamp in midweek, were pretty damning: the team’s average rating was 4.4, with golden child Kylian Mbappe receiving a 3. The only player to escape criticism was Neymar, who received a 6 after an impressive performance topped off by scoring PSG’s solitary goal.
Neymar’s appearance was his 51st in PSG colours, and the goal was his 46th for the Parisians which, allied to his 24 assists, means that he has been directly involved in 70 goals in just over a half-century of matches.
Despite those figures, the Brazilian – who moved to PSG to step out of Lionel Messi’s shadow and to improve his chances of winning the Ballon d’Or – placed only 12th in the individual award for 2018 (a drop of 9 places from 2017) – and this week he dropped from first to eighth place in l’Equipe’s rundown of the most influential people in French football (Mbappe appearing in joint-first place).
The dissonance between Neymar’s astounding stats and the recognition that he has received is striking. So why has he not received more love? It is probably fair to split possible explanations into footballing and non-footballing aspects.
On the football side, those stats need to be put into context. PSG’s financial advantage over their French opponents mean that they should – and for the most part do – dominate all domestic competition. They won the league by 13 points last season and are already the same number of points clear this season (with two games in hand). Rightly or wrongly, this means that many of their team and individual achievements are somewhat dismissed or under-valued (that defeat to Guingamp, for example, was their first in 45 ties in the two French cup competitions – an amazing run by any standards). With PSG operating on a different plane to their French opponents, they will always be judged on their performances in the very big domestic matches and, more importantly, the Champions League. Last season Neymar did not always perform in these matches. He was sent off against Marseille. He did little to influence the first leg of PSG’s knock-out tie against Real Madrid, before missing the second leg – and the rest of the season – through injury. Although it is hardly his fault that injury prevented him having any say over the second leg, the infamous quote from an angry Adrien Rabiot in the aftermath of the first leg 3-1 defeat – while applying to the whole team – perhaps inadvertently summed up the problem with Neymar: “It’s all well and good putting eight goals past Dijon [a match in which Neymar scored four], but it’s in matches like this that you have to stand up and be counted."
While there was disappointment that Neymar had failed to meet expectations that he would help PSG take the next step up in those big matches, it was perhaps more the extra-curricular issues that affected Neymar’s image in his first season. Despite the stats, he often seemed to be sulking through his Parisian experience. There was a public spat with the much-loved Edinson Cavani over who would take a penalty; there was the constant diving and complaining; there was the annual “injury” that coincided with his sister’s birthday; there was the selfishness on the pitch; there was the perception, when given time off, that he was being indulged far more than his teammates; there was the fact that he was in Brazil promoting a poker site when he could/should have been in Paris, even if injured, to witness PSG clinching the Ligue 1 title.
In short, there was a general feeling that without him PSG would still have won the domestic treble, that he was acting like a petulant brat and that, on balance, he was doing more harm than good to PSG’s image, the PR that he inevitably attracted being for the most part negative. Something had to give and perhaps Neymar’s failure and public humiliation at the World Cup, his diving going viral on social media – allied to the emergence of Mbappe as a rival to his undisputed No.1 status at PSG – was a wake-up call. The good news for Neymar and his fans is that, so far this season, it seems that he has learnt the lessons of the past year or so and is knuckling down to what he does best: playing football. This year he has reined in the temper-tantrums, has come across as far more of a team player and, in the number 10 role, dictated the Parisians’ excellent performances to date. Arguably PSG’s two matches against Red Star Belgrade in this season’s Champions League group stage encapsulate the progression of Neymar this season: in the first match he scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win that boosted his personal stats but meant little as there was not much at stake; in the second match, however, one played in a hostile atmosphere where PSG needed a result, 2017-18 Neymar may well have gone missing. Instead he controlled the match, scored an excellent goal (turning down numerous opportunities to go to ground on his way to goal) and reacted to some violent treatment by getting up quickly and smiling.
This is the Neymar that the world wants to see. More of this over the next year will benefit his team and also see him returning to the fore when it comes to individual recognition and public affection.