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SPORT

Neymar: we know you hate him. Here’s why you’re wrong

Words by Rob Chilton

As we enter the dramatic conclusion of a strange football season – beginning with PSG’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Manchester City tonight – Neymar is ready to stand up and be counted once again

Before Neymar signed a mega bucks deal with Puma, he wore Nike boots, specifically the Venom model. The name always seemed appropriate as Neymar so often played like a snake – not in the sense that he was conniving, sneaky and duplicitous, although we’ll come to that point later – but in the way he would glide around the pitch, nonchalantly chipping passes and casually swapping one-twos before suddenly thrusting forward with ferocious speed and directness to make a kill. Not many footballers in the world play with that kind of deception or a rhythm that choreographers would label quick-quick-slow. The guy is lethal.

Neymar's aiming for a treble this season

Neymar dribbles, scores goals, and assists. His teammate at Paris Saint-Germain, Kylian Mbappé, calls Neymar “the best passer in the world.” He plays for Brazil, the most glamorous team in the world, he dazzles with style on and off the pitch – all things that should make him one of the most popular footballers in the world. But ask 100 football fans of any allegiance or nationality to name the player they most dislike and there’s a good chance Brazil’s talismanic number 10 would figure highly in the responses.

‘He earns too much money, he dives, he whines to referees, he sulks, he’s greedy, he doesn’t defend or help his team…’ Neymar has heard all the accusations before. But season after season since making his debut for Santos more than 12 years ago aged just 17, Neymar has performed on every stage time after time. His flamboyance, trickery and skill would usually be the trademarks of a flighty player who drifts in and out of matches but one of the most impressive things about Neymar is his consistency. He’s scored 64 goals in 103 matches for Brazil over 11 years, when every time he pulls on the shirt he is subjected to extraordinary pressure and expectation. In his club career for Santos, Barcelona and PSG, Neymar has notched 228 goals in 366 matches. Six titles in Brazil, nine in Spain, nine in France and two for the national team prove Neymar is a man who regularly wins football matches. And yet he is not afforded the affection that his former teammate and friend Lionel Messi receives.

Mbappé and Neymar are a deadly duo

The play-acting is a problem for many. One of the most naturally gifted dribblers of the last decade, Neymar often invites fouls as he slaloms through defences. With more than 20 injuries in his career so far, he probably has the right to ask referees for protection. In February, after another knock, he took on his critics, writing: “For a while, I will once again have to stop doing the thing I most love in life, which is playing football. I dribble and I get hit constantly. It makes me very sad. It makes me very sad to have to listen to a player, a coach, a commentator or whoever the hell it is say ‘they have to kick him’, ‘he dives’, ‘cry-baby’ ‘spoilt kid’, etc. “It saddens me and I don’t know how much longer I can take it. I just want to be happy playing football. NOTHING ELSE.”

Jack Lang writing in The Athletic calls Neymar a “sublime, luminous talent,” and wonders why similarly gifted stars such as Kevin de Bruyne and Robert Lewandowski don’t provoke the opprobrium that Neymar does.

Will Neymar and Messi be reunited next season?

LOYALTY BONUS

But could public opinion be turning? Neymar has now been at PSG four years since his record-breaking AED 980m transfer from Barcelona in August 2017. Most of the football world slammed Neymar and raged that he was only moving for the money – let’s not be naïve, AED 3m per week must have played a part in his decision making – but he has stuck it out at PSG and, in today’s football climate where so many players engineer frequent moves, Neymar has shown loyalty and a genuine desire to win the club’s first Champions League.

With the ridiculously talented Mbappé, Neymar has forged one of the modern era’s most exciting partnerships, which has helped his likeability. He’s overtaken Ronaldo’s Brazil scoring record and is 13 goals behind Pele in top spot. He still doesn’t track back and defend, but that’s something that his coaches, including his current boss at PSG, Mauricio Pochettino, has to accept.

Dubai Eye sports host Chris McHardy believes we should stop giving Neymar a hard time. “I’ve always felt he hasn’t got the credit he deserved,” he says. “He’s far more than a show pony, look at his output at Barcelona where his goals and creation were incredible. He’s a heck of a player but he’s always been in the shadow of Messi and Ronaldo.” McHardy reckons his “histrionics at the last World Cup didn’t endear him to the public” while others were disappointed that he took the “perceived easy option” of moving to PSG. Missing games through injury, however, has led to a new appreciation of Neymar, argues McHardy.

Neymar is behind only Pele in the Brazil goals chart

“His absence has made the heart grow fonder. He’s letting his football do the talking now at age 29. Again he finds himself in the shadow of a great player in Mbappé who’s the real jewel in PSG’s crown, but with age, Neymar is more accepting of his supporting role.”

Neymar has said he’d like to return to Barcelona when his PSG contract expires in June 2022, but then contradicted himself and insisted, “I am very happy at Paris Saint-Germain. The idea of leaving does not cross my mind.” PSG’s sporting director Leonardo said, “Everyone knows our intention, there’s no rush. The relationship is great, we want to make it happen.” Neymar believes PSG is on the up. “Since I arrived here the club has definitely improved,” he said before the Champions League semi-final first leg defeat to Manchester City. “The club is more respected, people know we’re among the top four or five teams across the leagues. PSG is now getting the respect it deserves.”

Neymar enters crunch time in the 2021 season

With the conclusion of Ligue 1 approaching and the latter stages of both the Coupe de France and Champions League looming, Neymar could clinch a treble. A long-awaited Champions League title for PSG might be the perfect moment for Neymar to leave Parc des Princes and begin the next chapter of a career that has already produced so much but is yet to receive the universal praise it surely deserves.

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