The Brazilian national anthem rang out through a cavernous stadium in Sao Paulo and everyone, as per the custom, sang along with gusto. But the most expensive player in the world, now 27 and ostensibly at the very height of his prime, wasn’t there.
Copa America kicked off in Brazil on Friday night, with Brazil winning 3-0 against Bolivia, the lowest-ranked team in South America. The oldest national team tournament in the world will be played without Neymar who, not even two years after a deal worth about half a billion euros took him from FC Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, has become something approaching toxic.
Soccer’s one-time golden boy, the heir apparent to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the face of the game, will be absent from his nation’s quest to win the continental championship for the first time since 2007, on home soil no less.
He is injured. A ruptured ankle ligament will keep him out of the entire tournament. After a foot injury caused him to miss three key months of PSG’s season, including when it once again fell desperately short of its objective, stranding in the round of 16 of the Champions League to a Manchester United team suffering its own annus horribilis. Last season, incidentally, he also missed the business end of the club season due to a fractured metatarsal. He went on to have a mostly forgettable 2018 World Cup as Brazil crashed out in the quarterfinals.
That’s not all.
When next season begins, Neymar will be suspended for the first three games – assuming he’s still playing in France. At the Coupe de France final, Neymar punched a fan on the way up the stands to receive his medal after PSG had blown a 2-0 lead and lost to Rennes.
It gets worse.
Neymar stands accused of raping a Brazilian model in a hotel room after they apparently met on Instagram and he subsequently flew her to Paris. In a video posted to the social media platform in which he vigorously defended himself, Neymar may have run afoul of Brazilian revenge porn laws as he showed nude images she had sent him, instigating a second criminal case. He continues to deny any wrongdoing and has cooperated with police in the two investigations.
And so here he is. Two summers after he bailed on perhaps the best attacking threesome in the history of the game – with Messi and Luis Suarez – to become his own man, Neymar is damaged goods. Both of his seasons in France were ruined by injury. After a long, slow decay to his reputation, courtesy of frequent reports that he is a difficult teammate and his irredeemable penchant for acting on the field, the rape case has smashed what’s left of it to bits. He gave up the Brazil captaincy in 2016, after the Olympic gold medal, when he got fed up with the criticism of his attitude.
This was supposed to be the summer of Neymar. Or yet another one. He’d finally make Brazil – newly rebuilt by manager Tite and suddenly flush with talent in goal, midfield and up front – champions of South America again. And it was widely rumored that he might return to Barca. Or that perhaps Real Madrid would coax him back to Spain. Both clubs had visions for a big summer makeover, calling for just such an attacking mega-signing. But neither seems to have enquired very seriously after Neymar. Real has already landed Eden Hazard from Chelsea and Barca has been on the cusp of taking Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid for months. So much for Neymar.
Perhaps he has become more trouble than he was worth. And you wonder if PSG would have minded terribly if someone had lured him away at this point.
As for Brazil, you wouldn’t blame Tite and the Selecao if, on some level, they were quietly relieved by Neymar’s injury. Brazil is stacked with attacking talent, after all. In Richarlison, Willian, Philippe Coutinho, David Neres and even Gabriel Jesus, there are plenty of world-class alternatives to Neymar in his habitual spot on the left flank. (Tite left home several more off his squad in Douglas Costa, Lucas Moura and Vinicius Junior.) And none of them come with nearly as much baggage.
Neymar didn’t seem to be missed as Coutinho broke Bolivia’s stubborn resistance with a penalty kick and a header shortly after halftime. Everton piled on with a beauty from outside the box late on for his first international goal.
No Neymar necessary.
This won’t be the summer of Neymar. And for the first time in his career, he might even be an afterthought.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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