The Fading of a Star


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Neymar’s birthday party this year was, in theory, supposed to be a discreet affair. A quiet night in Paris with a select few friends and teammates, proof of how much the Paris St.-Germain star has matured, evidence of his new attitude, testament to his renewed focus on making the most of his talent, on helping to deliver a first Champions League trophy to the club that made him the most expensive player in history.

He would not, the story went, be prevailing upon one of his personal sponsors to stage the event, as Red Bull reportedly did in 2019. It would not be that sort of evening: toned down, stripped back, lighter on the flash and the glamour and the extravagance that has tended to mark his celebrations.

And that’s what he got. Neymar’s 28th birthday was just a regular night out: an entire Parisian nightclub taken over, the whole P.S.G. squad invited with their partners, as well as Neymar’s friends and sundry other players. Everyone dressed exclusively in white. It was, in short, the sort of evening any of us might arrange, really.

Neymar, you will remember, left Barcelona — where he was part of the most feared front line in soccer with Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez — and moved to Paris in the summer of 2017. He did so, those who knew him insisted, because he wanted to step out of Messi’s shadow, to be as central to a project as his old teammate had been to the rise of Barcelona. He wanted to leave the supporting cast and take center stage.

Principally, he wanted to win the Ballon d’Or, to be recognized as the finest player on the planet. He had, in recent years, been firmly established in the top five, even the top three, but he had always found himself behind Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He could not make that final leap, he thought — with, it should be stressed, impeccable logic — if he was not even recognized as the finest player on his team.

That first year, after he arrived, Neymar finished third in the Ballon d’Or voting. A year later, he was down to 12th. (It was a World Cup year, something that always skews the votes). This year, two Paris St.-Germain players made the final shortlist of 30. Kylian Mbappé ended up finishing sixth. Marquinhos was 28th. Neymar was not even nominated. (He was absent, too, from the list of 10 finalists for the similar FIFA Best award.)

By his own criteria, nearing three seasons after he left Barcelona, Neymar’s move to Paris can only be regarded as a spectacular failure. Not only has he conspicuously not won a Ballon d’Or, he has faded even from contention. The player who was supposed to be the heir for Messi’s crown — or Ronaldo’s, depending on your point of view — now seems to trail a whole new generation, spearheaded by Mbappé. Neymar was dancing in Paris as his time passed.

It would be easy to draw a link between that and a mind-set that sees hiring an entire nightclub for his birthday as low key, and it would not be entirely inaccurate. Neymar, certainly, has not been helped by being at a team so willing to indulge him, so in awe of his celebrity that more than one coach has felt unable to discipline him.

But that reading is overly simplistic; plenty of great players have managed to combine stellar performances and what we might call an “active” social life. What has held Neymar back far more significantly was illustrated a couple of days before his birthday, during P.S.G.’s rout of Montpellier on the way to yet another faintly meaningless French title.

Midway through the first half, Neymar found himself trapped in the corner, penned in by Montpellier’s Arnaud Souquet. He got out of it with a “rainbow flick,” rolling the ball against the back of his standing foot and arcing it over his head. It rebounded off Souquet, and out for a throw.

Jerome Brisard, the referee, was unimpressed, and warned Neymar about showboating. Neymar protested, and was booked for dissent (and not, as some reports had it, for the trick itself). At halftime, Neymar was still remonstrating. “I play football,” he told his teammate, Marco Verratti, after exchanging words with Brisard.

There is something essential about Neymar contained within this vignette: his imagination, his panache, his confidence and his ability, yes, but also his belief that soccer’s highest form is the expression of individual skill. It is that which makes him so in tune with the sport’s modern era, of course — all gifs and memes and six-second snapshots of brilliance going viral — but it is also his flaw.

The thing about those clips, the ones of brilliant goals and outrageous pieces of skill that go viral, accompanied by nothing more than a screed of emojis, is that they are devoid of context, and greatness in soccer, and in all sports, is determined almost exclusively by context.

Neymar’s trickery is an adornment to a game, not a determining factor in it. His joyous élan in a midst of a Ligue 1 game means less than a player of more limited gifts guiding a team through a finely poised Champions League tie. His barometer for what makes a player great has never been quite in sync with everyone else’s.

He still has time, of course. His form this year has been good; there is some truth in the idea that he is trying to focus more on the field. P.S.G. has a squad good enough to win the Champions League, with a kind draw and a fair wind. He is not yet finished.

But there is a sense that, when we look back on Neymar’s career, we will see the flash, the glamour, the extravagance, and little or nothing more: all style, no substance; a generational talent not quite fulfilled. As his party proved, low key does not come naturally to Neymar. There is a risk, a sad irony, that our memories of him, in years to come, may prove to be exactly that.

Who Wants the Greatest Ever?

A few weeks ago, it still seemed so dim, so distant, that it was hardly worth taking seriously. Yes, Lionel Messi had a clause in his contract that allowed him to walk out of Barcelona for nothing at the end of the season. Yes, Barcelona had just fired a coach. Yes, there was a little uncertainty in the Catalan air. But no, there was no real prospect of Messi’s leaving.

Not even a month later, that uncertainty has crystallized into something close to, something approaching, crisis. First, Eric Ábidal, Messi’s former teammate and now Barcelona’s sporting director, suggested the playing squad had essentially downed tools to bring about Ernesto Valverde’s dismissal. Then Messi, on Instagram, struck back, accusing Abidal of “throwing dirt” at the squad. Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barcelona’s president, had to step in to cool tempers.

Even if that works in the short term, the long term is different. The timing, for Barcelona, is awful. Messi has always said that he wants to end his career at the only club he has ever played for. (His previous desire, to return to Argentina to play for Newell’s Old Boys, his boyhood club, seems to have fallen by the wayside.)

Now, though, he is just a few months away from being able to make a clean break, and Barcelona is falling apart around him. And yet, even if he should choose to leave, it is oddly hard to see where he might go.

Only a handful of elite teams could afford his salary: P.S.G., Manchester City, and, at a push, maybe Manchester United and Internazionale. Is 32, though, really the time for him to uproot his family for the gray skies of England’s northwest? How could P.S.G. sign him and stay with the Financial Fair Play rules? Inter has tried to sign Messi before, but does it have enough appeal now?

It is a strange situation. Messi is the finest player in history. He has lost none of his brilliance. His departure would rock Barcelona to its core. Every team in the world would want him. In theory, anyway. In practice, it is not quite as simple as that.

Records Are Not What They Used to Be

Plenty of people have been in touch in the last few days to ask why the Canadian striker Christine Sinclair’s remarkable achievement in breaking the international goal-scoring record warranted only a caption in last week’s newsletter.

The honest answer is that — and I say this with all due respect to Christine Sinclair, and her men’s equivalent, Iran’s Ali Daei — it simply isn’t a record that means a lot to me. (For example: I have just Googled to check that nobody has overtaken Ali Daei without me noticing).

I can’t give a clear and concise, let alone satisfactory, answer as to why that is. Perhaps because it is so contingent on the strength of your opposition. Perhaps because international soccer, for men and women, does not occupy quite so much of my thoughts as it might, outside of the run-up to major tournaments.

Or perhaps these records have lost a little of their luster in recent years, as the gap between the major nations — a status Canada still just about merits in women’s soccer — and everyone else has grown so wide.

Take the England men’s team: it took nearly half a century for Wayne Rooney to overtake Bobby Charlton’s high-water mark of goals for the national team. But Rooney will only hold the record for a few years, I suspect, before either Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling catches him. It is the same, to some extent, for Sinclair, who surpassed Abby Wambach — hardly some dusty, long-forgotten name — to take the record.

That is not to say Sinclair’s does not deserve credit for her longevity, her hunger, her ruthlessness. She does. It will be intriguing to see if Alex Morgan (on 107) can catch her. Daei’s days, meanwhile, are surely numbered. Cristiano Ronaldo is only 10 behind him. I am pretty confident I will be equally unfazed when — not if — he scores his 11th.


Chris Cudahy is quite right to suggest that fans of roughly my age — mid-to-late 30s chronologically, early-to-mid 60s spiritually — are especially vulnerable to F.A. Cup nostalgia because, while we were young, “English clubs were banned from Europe.

“That meant there were only three trophies, and one end-of-season cup final,” Chris writes. “I never see that mentioned as an additional factor to the outsize historical importance of the F.A. Cup.” And he is right. Though he is forgetting the Zenith Data Systems Cup, the one they all wanted.

Oh, and a clarification, for James Smith. “What a shame you can’t appreciate the lower leagues of English football,” he said. “I can assure you that League One is far from ‘a level of ridiculousness.’” He is also right: League One is wonderfully odd. I did not intend to suggest the league was ridiculous, though, so much as the idea of calling the third tier of anything “League One.”

That’s all for this week. I really appreciate all the correspondence, on whatever subject takes your fancy, either on Twitter or at [email protected] But I would appreciate it even more if you could send this link here to all of your nearest and dearest. It is, after all, always nice to get mail.

Have a great weekend.


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