Sports

Neymar’s Legacy Depends on This World Cup

He needs this as much as Brazil needs him.

Neymar holds a soccer ball toward the camera.
For the team, he is still very clearly the Man. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Buda Mendes/FIFA via Getty Images.

Let’s take the path of least resistance. Say Brazil, the favorite, really does win the World Cup. It slides, frictionless, like God’s own air hockey puck, past its knockout-round demons and through the final to claim the nation’s sixth men’s championship.

How would that happen?

Brazil boasts two of the world’s best goalkeepers, a veteran-laden defense, and a muscular, energetic midfield, but the nation’s smoothest path to the title would be to receive a star performance from the talismanic Neymar. Brazil’s squadron of tricky wide attackers—Vinicius Junior, Raphinha, Antony, Rodrygo, Gabriel Martinelli—has enough combined talent to swing the tournament, but Neymar has scored more goals for his country than the eight(!) other forwards on the roster combined, and nearly has more appearances than all of them put together too (121 for him vs. 142 between the eight of them). He is, very clearly, the Man. To win without him, or with him struggling, would require restructuring the team on the fly mid-tournament. Possible—Brazil won a World Cup in 1962 despite losing freaking Pelé to injury in just the second game—but difficult.

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To be clear, Neymar is not currently struggling. He sails into this tournament on a stunning current of form. He’s second in Ligue 1 goals (11) behind Paris Saint-Germain teammate Kylian Mbappé, second in league assists (9) behind teammate Lionel Messi, for a combined total that’s already higher than what he managed in his past three full, albeit injury-plagued, seasons for PSG.

More likely, then, in this Brazilian maglev scenario is that Neymar does play well. Maybe he wins the Silver Ball as the second-best player in the whole thing. (Defeated finalists have a habit of taking the gold.) He scores four goals, which would take him past Pelé as his nation’s all-time leading scorer, and records three assists. He leads his nation—archetypically the most soccer-mad on the planet, the one that is synonymous with much that is good and right about the game—to its first World Cup title in 20 years.

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How would we feel about Neymar then?

A decade ago, Neymar was soccer’s next big thing. He was named South America’s best player in 2011 as a 19-year-old and won the Puskas Award for the most beautiful goal scored that same year. He moved to Europe in 2013 to play with Messi at Barcelona and became his heir apparent as the world’s best player.

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But the reign of Messi and of Cristiano Ronaldo, like many of this generation of athletes, continued far longer than history had suggested was possible. Now that it’s finally, measurably coming to an end, Neymar finds he has been surpassed by others: by Mbappé and Erling Haaland, by Mo Salah and Robert Lewandowski. The FIFA video game series pegged Neymar as the world’s 11th best player when its latest edition launched earlier this year. Messi is still fifth; Ronaldo eighth. The Age of Neymar ended before it began.

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He’s spent his prime adrift in Paris, where he moved in 2017, elevating the Qatari-owned PSG to an occasional Champions League semifinals but more often to a disappointing Round of 16 exit. He has rarely intersected with the game’s prime narratives. PSG are either comfortably, boringly dominant in France (four times out of five full seasons) or they are complacent and narrowly beaten to the title by a rival having the season of its life (once, but also in the season before Neymar’s arrival). He has only once played more than 20 league games in a season for PSG, only once served up double-digit assists, and has never bested the goal-scoring numbers he achieved with Barcelona. He has a curious habit of missing key games in the period around Brazil’s Carnival, which often coincides with either his own or his sister’s birthday. He has become notorious for his diving and his baiting of the referees, something soccer players are already notorious for. He has drawn criticism both at home and abroad for his attitude.

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But he remains the centerpiece of the national team, providing the creativity, goal-scoring, and set-piece ability that holds together Brazil’s collection of tweener forwards and speedy wingers. They run on to the throughballs that he delivers and win the penalties that he converts and watch him as he attempts to dribble through whole hosts of opposing teams with more success than anyone not named Messi has any right to have.

Brazil scored 40 and allowed only 5 goals in 17 games of World Cup qualifying. Neymar scored eight and assisted another eight, contributing to 40 percent of his team’s scoring despite only playing in 10 of those games. That’s really, dizzyingly good, even if four of those goals were penalties. If Brazil continues to score at eight times the rate they concede, they’ll stand a pretty good chance at winning the World Cup. If Neymar averages more than 1.5 goals and assists per 90 minutes played, then I can’t wait to see the tournament the other guy is going to have to win that Golden Ball.

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For Messi, winning a World Cup with Argentina would be a career capstone, the final reinforcement of his legacy. Neymar’s resume would lead with the fact that he won a World Cup with Brazil. The rest of his career, the period as an understudy in Barcelona, the half-seasons played for low stakes in Paris, will all be seen retroactively as leading to that moment. By winning this tournament, he would finally step out of the shadows of the game’s two titans, finally achieve something they haven’t.

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Then what? Would a World Cup title make Neymar the third-greatest player of the past era, brushing aside claimants like Luis Suárez, Lewandowski, and Luka Modric? Does he rocket past his new younger successors for a time, like Richard III but with less murder?

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Once upon a time, maybe. The World Cup used to be the ultimate legacy maker. Pelé’s career took off at a World Cup in 1958 and achieved apotheosis at another in 1970. Garrincha, Brazil’s unstoppable yo-yo dribbler, built his legacy in 1958 but especially in 1962, where he took over after Pelé’s injury and guided his nation to its second consecutive championship. FourFourTwo named Garrincha the 11th greatest player of all-time, and it wasn’t for what he accomplished at his club Botafogo.

Neymar won’t get a boost like that. (Not globally at least; Brazil presumably will have stronger feelings about it.)  This isn’t just because the quality of the club game has surpassed that of international play. It’s because the balance of attention has shifted, or perhaps more accurately, simply grown. The World Cup is still soccer’s biggest stage—ask James Rodríguez or Keylor Navas or any player who had his career irrevocably altered by a performance at one tournament—but the rest of the drama is more accessible now. Everyone can watch any game. More importantly, everyone can see every highlight and every headline, good and bad, even if they don’t see the game. The show never stops. You don’t even have to be watching it.

The weight of all that attention works against the possibility of a reevaluation. The idea of Neymar precedes the man, and has its own momentum. You don’t even have to have seen him play to have assimilated it: talented, petulant, a bit too much rolling around on the grass for nearly everyone’s tastes. Brazil may (or may not) glide to World Cup victory, but even that wouldn’t smooth over Neymar’s rocky reputation.

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