Neymar’s mixed legacy after 15 years: where do we stand?

It was 15 years ago today that Neymar scored the first goal of his professional career, striking for Santos against Mogi Mirim in the Sao Paulo State Championship. A decade and a half later, he is the top goalscorer in the history of the Brazil national team, overtaking Pelé and flying past great names such as Ronaldo, Romario, and Zico. And even though he does plenty besides scoring, he is still widely considered a disappointment. Is this fair?

The case for the prosecution opens up with a simple observation. If football were purely a case of numbers, then it would be bingo. Statistical accumulation can never tell the full story. Pelé and his acolytes surely blundered by putting so much emphasis on a career total that topped 1,000 goals. The essence of Pelé is to be found, like that of all great players, in the big, decisive matches, the games where titles are won and reputations are made.

And while Neymar still has time to improve his side of the balance sheet, even he would agree that he cannot compete with Pelé on this score. Pelé has three World Cup wins to his name, and though he was injured in the early stages of the middle campaign, he was fundamental to the other two. What does Neymar have?

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Yes, he won Brazil’s first Olympic gold medal in 2016. But that does not count as a senior title. Other than that, there is the Confederations Cup win of 2013, clinched with a stunning strike against reigning world champions Spain, but still a strictly second-rate tournament.

The case for the prosecution might also point out that so many of Neymar’s goals for Brazil have come in friendlies, 46 of his total of 79 (including three in games when a cup was at stake but which were, in effect, glorified friendlies).

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The case for the defence has an easy reply. It is not his fault that he began his international career at a time when, as hosts of the 2014 World Cup, Brazil had little else but friendlies to dispute. And his record in competitive matches is pretty good — just five goals in 12 Copa América games, but four in five in that 2013 Confederations Cup, 16 goals in 28 World Cup qualifiers, and, the undoubted top of the tree — eight in 13 World Cup games.

Moreover, the case for the defense can also make the point that his World Cup participation has suffered unduly with injuries. He was, of course, ruled out of the rest of the 2014 tournament after suffering a brutal foul in the quarterfinal against Colombia. And his displays in 2018 and 2022 were at least as good as could have been expected given the need to be receptive from further injury setbacks.

Also, the argument might be made that had Brazil not suffered a shock last-minute goal against Croatia in the 2022 quarterfinal and then lost the penalty shootout, he would have been lauded as a hero for finally breaking the deadlock with a magnificent solo goal.

To which the case for the prosecution will rebut that legacies have no space for “what might have been,” and that also he might bear a little bit of the responsibility for some of the injuries he has picked up. This is an odd point, but one which merits consideration, because it takes us closer to the heart of the Neymar story.

Of course, when a player is fouled and suffers an injury, it comes across as ridiculous to blame the one who has suffered the foul. Responsibility clearly lies with the offender. But, in a sport of physical contact, consideration must be given to the undeniable fact that ever since the ball has been rolling, talented players have been on the end of rough treatment. Indeed, contemporary players receive much more protection from referees than their predecessors did.

Avoiding fouls is, therefore, a necessary part of the skill set of a talented player, especially one of a frail build. This is second nature to the old-fashioned street footballer. He learns when to go for the dribble and, every bit as important, when to move the ball on and wait for a better opportunity.

But Neymar is not a street footballer in that sense. He grew up through futsal and developed a defense strategy around the presence of the referee. Often he has wanted to show to the referee that he is being fouled, and has tried to draw the foul. This has not proven a sound method of self-defense and has also frequently made little footballing sense — some of his worst passages of play have been when he drops ever deeper in a quest to win meaningless free kicks.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Neymar simply could not have operated in the era of Pelé, while Pelé would have had few problems adapting to the modern era. But Neymar is, of course, a child of his times, the epoch of football as big business in the global entertainment industry. He has been hothoused from an infant to thrive and prosper in this environment, as part of a project run by his father.

The case for the prosecution could certainly argue that this process has spoiled him, and left him with problems dealing with adversity. From a personal level, the biggest game of his career was the UEFA Champions League final for Paris Saint-Germain against Bayern Munich in 2020, where it was striking how much his game fell apart from the moment that the Germans scored. The pressure seemed all too much.

The case for the defense could rebut that the pressure seemed all too much because it was too much. Right from the start, it was clear that two measuring rods would be used to gauge the career of Neymar, at least in the eyes of his compatriots. One was winning the World Cup, which is always a collective achievement and depends on circumstances. The other is claiming the Ballon d’Or award. Brazilians used to see this trophy as a birthright, but not since Kaka in 2007 has one of them walked off with it. Neymar was supposed to put that right — an exaggerated and unnecessary demand in a team sport, but one taken seriously.

It was this that provoked his move from Barcelona — where he slotted in wonderfully well — to PSG in 2017. How could he be the world’s individual best when he was living in the house of Lionel Messi? He had to break away and form his own family, and so he ended up in a league where the physicality did not suit him, with a club making that uncertain journey to unaccustomed heights. Is it any wonder that the project did not meet all of its objectives?

Counsels for the prosecution and the defense may now rest, pending new evidence. The story is not over yet. There are new chapters still to be written. It would be unwise to write off such a prodigiously gifted talent. Fifteen years in, we are clearly much closer to the end than to the beginning. But if he wants it and has the fortune to stay fit, then Neymar still has one World Cup ahead of him and possibly two.

Many in Brazil thought Pelé should not go to Mexico in 1970. Quality has a way of shutting mouths. If the sight of the finish line redoubles focus, the most interesting part of the Neymar story may lie ahead.