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“I cannot describe what I am feeling in my heart right now,” said Neymar, in his first press conference in Paris on August 4, 2017. "I have never been motivated by money. It is not my primary concern.
“I always follow my heart."
Ten days after Gerard Pique’s ill-fated “Se queda” (“He stays”) tweet, the Brazilian’s heart led him to a crowded Paris Saint-Germain press conference room, where he laid out his intentions to lead his new employer to Champions League glory.
To the shock of much of the soccer world, Neymar had given up his spot in the world’s best attacking trident at Barcelona in order to forge his own path, away from the spotlight that follows Lionel Messi. If the precocious forward was to etch his name on a Ballon d’Or trophy, he would need to do it with a fresh canvas, surrounded by a supporting cast who would aid him to his goal.
When PSG agreed to meet his release clause of $245 million — double the world transfer record — the stage was set.
Unfortunately, in the two years since Neymar exulted on the precipice of his new beginning, it seems that the indescribable feelings in Neymar’s heart have dissipated. And the feelings in the hearts of PSG fans have fizzled away, too.
Perhaps frustrated by the relative lack of competition in Ligue 1, there is a feeling that the expensive Brazilian has not been working at maximum effort levels on the field. Champions League victory, which has been the primary aim of the club’s Qatari owners since they took control, has also fallen beyond his reach. In his two seasons in France, PSG have failed to clear the Round of 16.
His elevated status has led to numerous reported fights in the dressing room, including one with Edinson Cavani that spilled onto the pitch when it was unclear who was assigned penalty-taking duties.
And a perceived lack of effort hasn’t been helped by a popstar lifestyle, which includes frequent trips back to Brazil for family and commercial reasons. At times, Neymar has seemed more interested in his performance on Instagram than on the field.
The 27-year-old’s time in the French capital has also been pockmarked by unsavory and unfortunate incidents. After April’s Coupe de France defeat to Rennes in April, for example, he was caught on camera punching a fan. A few months later, he found himself at the center of rape allegations.
Even when Neymar has enjoyed moments of glory in Parisian blue, they have been slightly tainted. A triumphant 8-0 victory over Dijon in January 2018, in which he contributed four goals and two assists, ended with him being booed for taking a potentially record-breaking penalty away from Cavani. When he tried to participate in a team photo after the recent French Super Cup win, it appeared that he was shoved out of the way by Kylian Mbappe.
At this point in French sojourn, Neymar probably expected to have a World Player of the Year award to his name, earned via his incredible performances in spearheading PSG to the top of the European game.
Instead, his name is nowhere near the Ballon d’Or conversation, his club are no better off and fans are displaying offensive banners in his honor.
Accordingly, the Selecao star has tried to force a move away from Paris, either back to Barcelona, or their rivals Real Madrid. “Neymar can leave PSG if there is an offer which suits everyone,” said PSG Sporting Director Leonardo in July.
Unfortunately for the high-priced forward, that suitable offer never came. Real Madrid had already allocated their Galactico budget to Eden Hazard, while Barca had spent a cool $221 million on Frenkie De Jong and Antoine Griezmann.
So desperate was the Brazilian to return to the Camp Nou that he reportedly offered $22 million of his own money to help the deal go through (even though this technically contravenes French Football Federation rules).
Despite Barcelona’s spending, and the acrimonious manner in which he left — the club and Neymar have sued one another on more than one occasion — the Catalans appear to have been keen to bring him back. Recent matches in which they have lacked ideas in the final third, in the absence of Messi, suggest he would be a very useful addition. However, the Spanish giants could not meet PSG’s asking price, and Neymar finds himself marooned in France for another season.
So why has Neymar’s Parisian experiment failed?
Some might blame his lack of focus, his off-field issues and the manner in which PSG has come up short in the Champions League.
But the primary reason he has failed to set the Parc des Princes alight has been out of his control: His constant battles with injury.
In his freshman Ligue 1 season, Neymar spent a total of 115 days on the sidelines (as per Transfermarkt), including a 16-game absence for a fractured metatarsal.
Last season, he spent 180 days out of action. Another metatarsal injury kept him out for over two months, meaning he was unavailable when his teammates surrendered a first-leg lead to Manchester United in the Champions League.
It is unreasonable to expect a superstar to truly shine when he has been out of action for around a third of his available playing time. And it may be no coincidence that both of PSG’s Champions League exits during Neymar’s tenure have come while he has been out of action.
Regardless, the Brazilian is now given another chance to win back the fanbase that currently views him as an expensive failed experiment.
If he knuckles down, cuts out superfluous trips to South America for sibling birthdays and extraneous commercial duties, and leads PSG to European glory, all will be forgiven. Fans are quick to forgive in those instances.
The superstar forward may not feel good about having to stay in Ligue 1, but he has a tremendous opportunity to turn a negative period of his career into a positive one.
But for that success to happen, Neymar needs more minutes — which means more luck in the injury department.
He also needs to show the one thing he described in his first PSG press conference, when he set out his ambitions at the club: heart.
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