There’s a decent debate to be had as to whether Neymar Jr, Paris Saint-Germain’s Jesus-loving dribble-princeling, is currently the finest player in the world.
Certainly, there isn’t too much that can be said to deny his place in the top three. Yet, outside an army of zealots in Brazil and Paris for whom he is as infallible as a 14th-century Pope, there doesn’t appear to be a huge amount of love out there for the Fauxhawked One.
Most would acknowledge his extraordinary talent. Frankly, it would be stupid not to: he is arguably the most naturally skillful player in the game, implausibly well-balanced and possessed of that intangible, innate rhythm that usually ends up being beaten out of footballers by short-sighted coaches.
Neymar moves with the grace of a man for whom the sport has always been easy, swaying lithely and jinking fluidly, sending people for hot dogs with a mere twitch of the hips. He shifts the ball about with provocative insolence, as if it were a peeled grape under the tongue of a Biblical handmaiden.
He is, then, a player who should be adored almost universally. But, instead, he inspires disdain and reverence in fairly equal quantities. It’s easy to put this down to bitterness among fans of former clubs, or simply bog-standard envy on the part of those who begrudge him his gifts, his looks and his millions.
But there’s something about Neymar that grates beyond just a general distaste for simulation. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that is. For some, he serves as the archetype of the woe-is-me grumbler, a pouting, foot-stomping presence who has an unwanted – but probably just about merited – reputation for whining his way through matches.
Few other footballers can so easily channel the Wounded Genius character. Unquestionably, he is petulant – the covetous would say spoiled – and self-obsessed. But, it’s hard not to be when you’re a supremely talented millionaire for whom life has been thus far a pretty non-stop procession of being handed whatever you want. Neymar is what football has made him, and it’s pretty facile to dislike him as a result.
However, maybe the dip in Ney-love is also about his choices. By swapping a Spain-based Kafala-funded petroclub for a France-based Kafala-funded petroclub, he has effectively removed himself from the spotlight that La Liga and El Clasico provided, in order to compete against teams like Angers, Metz and Guingamp.
Compared to the Spanish and English top tiers, very few people bother to watch Ligue 1, but for enough money – and the chance to be Superstar Number One at an upwardly mobile club – Neymar was willing to ignore that.
Which is fine, of course, but it basically means that the audience for which he is performing is now a much smaller one. It’s only natural, therefore, that he slips from the mind until whatever time PSG re-emerge from the French doldrums in order to either smash some third-rate no-marks in the Champions League, or to exit that competition at the hands of a better side.
And so that fateful transfer is perhaps why, more than anything else, the perception of Neymar shifted from prodigious, endearing enfant terrible to brooding man-boy.
At Barcelona, alongside Messi and Luis Suárez, he excelled and duly won the hearts of Blaugrana supporters, as well as many others across Europe and beyond. But, somehow, he always seemed the junior partner in that trio, despite a real claim to being the best of the bunch at various stages. For a man with a universe-sized ego like Neymar, that was never going to be enough, and he engineered his way out of the club.
Ironically, this action has cost him the worldwide adoration he so dearly craves. The love he engendered at Barca was lost in one fell swoop, not just among Culés but also among a wider group of observers whose respect for the Brazilian plummeted as soon as he decided to obtain his Qatari Kool-Aid from a different source.
He arrived at the Nou Camp from Santos in 2013 as a diamond-studded upstart with a galactic level of ambition, and ultimately it was that same ambition that drove him to leave.
It’s hard to see a way back into the forefront of the football consciousness while he remains in Paris.
With the Premier League now genuinely the best domestic competition in Europe, players such as Mohamed Salah, Kevin de Bruyne and Paul Pogba are likely to usurp much of the attention that might have been paid to Neymar had he stayed in Catalonia.
Moreover, other less gifted footballers will be afforded more recognition than he, simply thanks to the fact they are being watched by more people – and that may not change even if PSG win the Champions League. Neymar wants to win the Ballon d’Or (or whatever it’s called now) but while he plays in France, that’s probably not going to happen – unless, of course, Brazil win the World Cup, which is a different story altogether.
Maybe, just maybe, he would be better served by finding a stage more suited to his heavenly powers: the football world needs Neymar as its brightest star, not as a very rich fish in a small pond.