It’s difficult to decide whether Neymar Junior has met or fallen short of the grandiose expectations that were laid on his young shoulders so many years ago. Making his professional debut at 17 years old, he quickly made his presence known while playing for storied Brazilian club Santos. Turning down multiple offers from European clubs, Neymar continued his success by twice being named South American Footballer of the Year and leading his club to the 2011 Copa Libertadores — Santos’ first since 1963.
Soon after he would transfer to Barcelona and become part of the famed MSN attacking trio alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. On track to taking over the mantle as the next major Brazilian star, he was tabbed by fellow countrymen Ronaldinho and Ronaldo on becoming the best player in the world in the next few years. He would find the most individual and team success in 2015 when Barcelona attained the treble by winning La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the club’s fifth UEFA Champions League title. Scoring in both the Copa del Rey and UCL finals, Neymar ended the season with 39 goals in all competitions. While maintaining the trajectory to becoming potentially one of the best, he found himself playing alongside arguably the world’s best player in Messi year after year.
It is widely believed that Neymar’s €222 million transfer to PSG in 2017 was an effort to escape from Messi’s ever-present shadow in what would be the most expensive transfer ever. Rather than flourishing in what should have been a golden opportunity, he took backward steps in his career. Injuries and disappointing Champions League exits have accompanied his goal-scoring regression. Although the objective was to stake the club as his own, backed by the club’s Qatari owners, PSG soon acquired Kylian Mbappé in the second-most expensive transfer. Incidentally, Mbappé’s ascension over the past five years has coincided with Neymar taking a back seat to his 23-year-old teammate.
In a twist of fate, Neymar’s record transfer would precipitate Barcelona into a series of misspending that would result in Messi joining PSG on a free transfer in August 2021. Instead of leading his own club, Neymar found himself again overshadowed by his former teammate along with the realization that the club was methodically being turned over to the rising play of Mbappé.
On the international level, the Brazilian forward has won an Olympic gold medal, but has failed to win in other major tournaments. At the World Cup, his legacy has been marred by incidences and injury. In 2014, Neymar got off to a brilliant start, scoring four goals and assisting one in Brazil’s first four matches. But in the semifinal against Colombia, a knee to the back from Juan Camilo Zuniga forced him to be removed from the field by stretcher. He ended up missing the rest of that World Cup in his home nation with a fractured vertebra in his spine which he claims to have nearly ended his football career.
While it was expected that he would surpass Pele as Brazil’s all-time scorer, it’s looking very unlikely now. He would have to rush back from his injury just to be able to play in the December 18 final if Brazil were to qualify.
His participation in the 2018 World Cup was preceded by a three-month absence after having broken the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. Although he was able to make a comeback in time for Russia, his penchant for going down easily was at an all-time high no doubt due to his sensitivity in wanting to avoid further injuries. There were accusations of “diving and play-acting” and Brazilian newspaper O Globo went so far as to write that “Neymar has charmed Brazil, but annoyed the whole world.”
His bad run of injuries directly preceding or occurring in World Cups has sadly continued in Qatar as well. During Brazil’s opening match against Serbia, Neymar was repeatedly fouled and sustained an ankle sprain after stepping on Nikola Milenkovic’s foot. According to Brazil doctor Rodrigo Lasmar, there was a lateral ligament injury to Neymar’s right ankle as well as small bone swelling. While Tite, Brazil’s manager, said he believed Neymar would play again in Qatar, he has so far been ruled out of the next game against Switzerland.
This does not bode well for the 30-year-old who has a history of ankle injuries including most recently a sprained ankle in November 2021 which sidelined him for 12 matches. While it was expected that he would surpass Pele as Brazil’s all-time scorer, it’s looking very unlikely now. He would have to rush back from his injury just to be able to play in the December 18 final if Brazil were to qualify.
This tournament marks his third and most likely final World Cup appearance. He has 75 international goals as Brazil’s second all-time leading scorer behind Pele’s 77. As great as he has been throughout his career, one can’t deny a sense that he didn’t quite fulfill his once limitless potential. For measure, the closest he’s come to winning the Ballon d’Or has been finishing in third in 2015 and 2017, fittingly behind Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The anticipation that Neymar would eventually wrest the top award away from the long dominant duo never came to fruition and it seems like a new crop of players will soon surpass him — if they haven’t already.
To be fair, this is probably the last World Cup for Messi and Ronaldo and they haven’t won the elusive Jules Rimet trophy either. Yet their legacies are tempered with seven and five Ballons d’Or, respectively. Additionally, Ronaldo was able to win the 2016 EUROs with Portugal while Messi was able to finally lift the Copa America trophy for Argentina in 2021. Neymar has yet to reach such heights while representing the Seleção, and his legacy most likely has the most to gain from a World Cup trophy. It’s unfortunate that he had come to Qatar playing better than he had in years past having scored 15 goals in 20 appearances before getting hurt. Now it seems that his chance at redeeming glory is slipping just beyond his reach once again.