In an October 2019 interview with Money Heist actor Jaime Lorente, who played Denver, Neymar Jr. ended their conversation with the following words: “Choosing is difficult, but in life you have to choose, otherwise you’ll never be happy.”
Moments before, he ruminated on his career and how he had evolved as a person through his experiences:
“I’ve been through many times in my career when I’ve really suffered. I’ve suffered a lot but it made me grow as a person and improve myself in many areas. Of course, I’m still only 27 years old, there are things I still need to improve on. But I’ve learned a lot through my defeats, through my mistakes… And you’re constantly learning. We might lose sometimes, sometimes by not very much, but we gain a lot.”
It remains no secret that the Brazilian is one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. However, in the back of his mind, he must be wondering exactly what went wrong in his career. What mistakes is he talking about? And what sufferings? Surely not leaving Barcelona?
Yet, in another instance in the interview the Brazilian confessed that whenever he feels ‘sad or angry’ he does not go out, but stays inside his house. He says he does not want fans to catch him in a sour mood. Therefore, despite all his wealth, fame, and prestige, the now 28-year-old was, back then, a vulnerable and insecure young man, going through a phase of anxiety that haunts other celebrities as well.
Neymar loves partying, with his larger-than-life persona resembling his fun-loving nature. Yet, we seldom acknowledge the fact that despite their fat paychecks, footballers, after all, are human beings just like us.
Another Brazilian footballer, Adriano, was a key player for Inter Milan, and who was unfortunately never the same after the demise of his father. More recently, reports have suggested that Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga’s poor form has coincided with a tough period for him mentally after it emerged he had split up with his girlfriend.
Jesse Lingard’s mental health concerns and the subsequent impact on his game have also been well documented this season. There have been instances when players have committed suicide for not being able to cope with the loss of their children. I am, of course, referring to Hannover 96 goalkeeper and captain Robert Enke.
We thus have a lingering sense that Neymar may not be happy with the choices he has made. Engaging in activities like video-games or partying may well be a safety-valve to deal with the negative career choices he has made so far, a mechanism to drown out his inner turmoil.
The Power of Choice
Neymar’s interview with Lorente is also telling because the latter’s role as Denver is also crucial to the understanding of the power of ‘choice’. In the hit TV show Money Heist, Denver’s father Moscow does not want his son to be a part of the notorious gang; who are susceptible to all kinds of dangers the opposition can throw at them. Yet, the former chooses to rob the Royal Mint nevertheless and pays for the consequences of his choices.
We are constantly shaping our lives with the choices we make.
As a 16-year-old boy, Neymar was first approached by Florentino Perez’s Real Madrid. The Real Madrid president, renowned for having an eye for talent, knew the boy would be a star one day. Besides, the 18th Los Blancos chief, who was in his second term, was adamant about adding this new piece of gem to his collection of Galacticos.
Neymar slipped out of his hands, returning to play for Santos instead, and as luck would have it, the 2011 Club World Cup final would pit the 19-year-old Neymar with a certain Lionel Messi. And in that evening, history would change. Just two years later, in the summer of 2013, Neymar would step on to the hallowed turf of the Nou Camp.
Hence, from being a Santos player, Neymar had the chance to feature for Los Blancos. But instead, it was Barcelona who relished the prospect of snatching away the Brazilian from their bitter rivals, in much the same way Los Blancos took away another South American in Alfredo di Stefano from the Blaugrana almost six decades ago.
The Curse of Fame
Neymar’s success came at a price. Although the talented Brazilian had enough talent and formed a deadly trio alongside his good friends Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, he always had a sense of entitlement about him.
His flamboyant hairstyles, coupled with his penchant for partying and enjoying the nightlife a bit too much had put some seeds of doubt in the minds of the Barcelona chiefs. In one of his last days at the Nou Camp, Neymar had an altercation with assistant manager Juan Carlos Unzue, who had cautioned him that unless he mended his ways, he would head in the same direction as Ronaldinho.
Neymar, of course, did not like the comparison with his senior counterpart, whose saga of quick decline is an oft-repeated cautionary tale in the world of football
But in many ways, comparing Neymar to Ronaldinho was a compliment to the former and not an insult. Ronaldinho won the FIFA World Player of the Year on two consecutive occasions in 2004 and 2005. He was also a part of the Brazil squad which won their nation’s last World Cup to date in 2002.
Neymar is yet to achieve such feats. The only place in which he compares with Ronaldinho is that both men played a pivotal role in delivering Barcelona the Champions League title. However, the current PSG star also shares the beaming Brazilian’s passion for partying, a trait that might also lead to his decline.
What makes Neymar’s story even more delicate is that until recently, he was touted to the ‘next big thing’ in world football. He would be the one to break the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly in the Ballon d’Or rankings. It seemed Neymar was destined for the prize. He came third in the 2015 edition of the awards and even shared an interview stage with Messi and Ronaldo, who finished first and second respectively.
Today, however, Neymar is no longer at the centre of footballing conversations. He is now ousted by the likes of his PSG teammate Kylian Mbappe, Barcelona’s Ansu Fati, and Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior. Others such as Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz, and Timo Werner are arguably more exciting players to look at and talk about today.
At 28 years of age now, it is difficult to see Neymar succeeding at a different club apart from PSG. He should have realised that he was making a wrong move in a footballing sense when he switched allegiances to Paris in 2017. Of course, it made a lot of sense financially, as he is today one of the wealthiest players around with a reported weekly salary of €750,000 to his name.
Like David Beckham who focused more on fame and money, much to the dismay of Alex Ferguson – the manager who groomed him – Neymar also has a similar trajectory. Like Beckham, we have seen Neymar’s focus shift away from football for large portions of his career. He has also been labelled unprofessional.
A heart full of regrets
There will come a time, in the distant future, when Neymar will regret his move. If his interview with Lorente is anything to go by, he may have already begun to regret his choice.
Throughout his time at the Nou Camp, Neymar had always been under the shadow of Lionel Messi, his more illustrious teammate.
It is true that in the 2016-17 season, it was Neymar who had a more illustrious campaign. It was Neymar who played the most pivotal role in that UEFA Champions League match against PSG, that 6-1 sensation. The Brazilian scored the free-kick that kickstarted their astonishing late turnaround. It was also he who scored Barcelona’s fifth goal via a penalty and provided that left-footed lobbed pass for Sergi Roberto.
Yet despite the Brazilian’s great performance, it was an iconic picture of Lionel Messi that did the rounds on social media, and in all top media publications. In the picture, Messi stood with his fists pumped out in celebration, against the backdrop of a Camp Nou night sky, while swathes of adoring masses surrounded him. Santiago Garces, an employee of the club, took the snapshot.
It was the second coming of Jesus, or so it seemed. It was a picture that Messi described as ‘the photo of my life’. Yet it is a picture that took the limelight away from Neymar and heaped it on to the Argentine, who did little in the game apart from scoring a penalty, Barcelona’s third goal of the night.
In a sense, Neymar’s choice to leave Barcelona was as much a desire to carve a unique place for himself in the history of football as it was to earn a sense of appreciation for his efforts. As outsiders, we cannot blame him for the choice of leaving Barcelona, as we simply cannot empathise with his predicament. Since his departure, the Brazilian may have made more money, but his stock has considerably declined as a footballer.
Perhaps the biggest damnation is that nobody wants Neymar anymore. He will no doubt demand a hefty salary from his future employers, and at 28, he is no longer the much-desired player that he once was. Therefore, the onus on him to deliver in PSG colours is more than ever before.
The former Barcelona player has also been unlucky on the international stage, though through no fault of his own. His 2014 World Cup was cut short due to an injury in the quarter-finals, and injury once again prevented him from appearing at the 2019 Copa America tournament, a competition his nation went on to win without needing his services.
Taking a less-fancied road
The dilemma of choice is best summed up by the American poet Robert Frost in his poem The Road Not Taken, perhaps the greatest poem on human choices ever written.
The poem opens and ends with the most telling lines in the history of American poetry, words that may well be spoken by Neymar himself:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, …
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The two roads in the poem could metaphorically be Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, and Neymar took the ‘less traveled’ road by choosing the latter over the former, while most other players would have opted to stay at the more successful institution, Barcelona.
The career of Neymar shows us the incredible power of choice, an extremely important matter in the life of a footballer. The choice of changing clubs can make or break a player’s career. We have had other examples from the past where players have suffered because of their club ‘choices’.
Aliaksandr Hleb regretted his move to Barcelona from Arsenal, and Kaka saw his career stagnated after his 2009 move to Real Madrid. He looked a far cry from the AC Milan player who had won the Ballon d’Or just two years ago in 2007.
For now, the world awaits to see if the 28-year-old can deliver the much-coveted Champions League trophy to the Parc des Princes, an achievement that will in some way go on to justify his move, especially as Barcelona have also not won the competition since his departure.
In the summer of 2017, Neymar made a choice, a choice which so far has proved to be costly for him, despite his massive bank balance. It is a cost that neither time nor money can adequately make up. Maybe only success can. We’ll have to wait and see.
Is there a silver lining on the cards?
Neymar will undoubtedly be buoyed by the fact that his team has managed to show enough strength and character to win the Coupe de la Ligue the French Cup final, especially after the 2019-20 Ligue 1 season ended prematurely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
His career may well have been saved, for it was first reported that the French government had stopped all sporting activity until September, a move that has since been lifted. This allowed Neymar to win two more domestic titles with the Parisians, and the trophy cabinet may well get fuller if he can inspire PSG to win their maiden Champions League title.
In a sense, Neymar’s decision to join PSG can be seen as a brave desire to help European ‘minnows’ earn the status of an elite. Although financially strong, the Parisian club has a far-less illustrious history in continental competitions. Maybe he will be able to change that and leave behind a lasting legacy.
Neymar did not want to play second fiddle to Messi in Barcelona; he wanted the Cristiano Ronaldo treatment: to be the centre of attention at his club. However, by being born on the same day as the Portuguese superstar, Neymar is overshadowed when it comes to birthday wishes as well. Both him and Ronaldo are born on the 5th of February.
“Choosing is difficult, but in life you have to choose, otherwise you’ll never be happy” he had said. Now, he has the chance to be happy about his choice, to justify his decision to leave the Nou Camp. The Brazilian finally has the chance to shine against Italy’s Atalanta, a chance both he and his club simply have to take. If PSG can win the Champions League in this turmoil-riddled football season, the world might just sit up and take notice of Neymar once again.
But more importantly, it will let the Brazilian face the mirror more confidently once again. And in his eyes, he will see why he fell in love with football in the first place all those years ago.
Written by Raj Das | Feature Image by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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