Even in defeat, is Neymar the best in the world?

. Aug 24, 2020
neymar uefa champions league Neymar came short of elevating PSG to the next level. Photo: Michael Regan/UEFA via Getty Images

After a long Covid-19 hiatus, the Brazil Sports newsletter returns. With the European season brought to a close by the Champions League final, we look at chances Neymar has of being named World Player of the Year. Ronaldinho is set to return to Brazil after five months in custody in Paraguay, and the Brazilian FA pretends Covid-19 never happened with its bonkers football schedule for 2021. Enjoy your read!

Another score to settle for Neymar

Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain battled it out for the Champions League trophy on Sunday, but many had this game billed differently: for them, it was Robert Lewandowski v. Neymar, a straight showdown between two forwards for the title of The Best Fifa Men’s Player award, set to be announced later this year. As it happened, this meeting of the two leading candidates for football’s biggest individual honor ended with Neymar in tears.

Neither player made an unquestionable case for winning the award, but the 28-year-old Brazilian striker certainly hurt his own chances with a largely anonymous display, as the German champions ground out PSG with a commanding and assured 1-0 win. Now, Neymar reaches another fork in his professional career, which has been one of the most fascinating trajectories to follow in recent years.

What went wrong? Neymar was quiet in Sunday’s match, but credit for this must go to Bayern Munich, who rarely allowed PSG’s forwards a way into the game. Regardless of the circumstances or the opposition, however, the significance of an underwhelming display at this point in Neymar’s career cannot be understated.

Third time still unlucky. In three years at Paris Saint-Germain, the Champions League trophy has eluded Neymar. His first two seasons saw him sidelined with injury as his teammates were dumped out in the knockout rounds. This year, he was almost as absent once again as PSG failed to win the top prize.

What now? Fans and pundits may be quick to jump to the conclusion that Neymar has run his course at the Paris club, suggesting he now look for pastures new. However, an exit now seems unlikely. With two years left on his contract, he carries a market value of USD 151.5 million, and PSG’s Qatari owners are unlikely to let him go for anything less than the USD 262 million they paid for him back in 2017. And while he would walk into any side in world football, no club has the money to buy him, particularly with Covid-19 financial troubles set to lowball transfer fees for the time being.

  • What is much more likely is PSG changing to accommodate Neymar. As things stand, the team is increasingly reliant on the Brazilian forward and his French partner-in-crime Kylian Mbappé. Despite having talented players all over the pitch, when push comes to shove PSG simply look to launch the ball toward Neymar and Mbappé, hoping they can conjure up moments of match-winning brilliance.
  • Neymar needs more teammates at his high level. Perhaps, with doubts surrounding the future of Lionel Messi at Barcelona, the Argentinian could be persuaded to hop over the Pyrenees and join up with his old teammate.

But, is he the best? You won’t find many takers for this argument after such a lackluster showing in a Champions League final, but at this moment in world football, there no more talented and complete attacking player than the 28-year-old from São Paulo state. He might just deserve the top prize, Champions League or no.

Is that enough? For most players, winning Fifa’s highest individual honor serves as no consolation for losing the Champions League final with your team. But it might be just what Neymar is after. Throughout most of his career, Neymar maintained that his idol in the game was Robinho, a fellow product of the youth system at Brazilian club Santos, and whose talent and success Neymar has long surpassed. When leaving Brazil as a teenager, en route to Real Madrid, Robinho told the press that his ultimate goal was not winning the Champions League, or the World Cup, it was to be the best player in the world. Indeed, he managed neither, but this individual desire is something Neymar shares.

Despite three failed attempts at winning the Champions League with PSG, if this season gets Neymar his platinum-coated player of the year trophy, he might just look back at it as all being worthwhile in the end.

Ronaldinho could return to Brazil

After five months under arrest in Paraguay — first in a high-security prison and then under house arrest in a four-star hotel — former World Cup-winning forward Ronaldinho is expected to be granted the right to return to Brazil later today.

How did he get there? We covered the ins and outs of Ronaldinho’s legal woes in Paraguay in previous editions of this newsletter but, in summation, in March, the twice World Player of the Year was arrested alongside his brother Assis in Asunción, after being found in possession of fake Paraguayan passports.

The investigation. Almost half a year later, Paraguayan police are no closer to knowing why the brothers received the passports, or what they were to be used for. Ronaldinho and Assis — who doubles up as the former Barcelona player’s agent — claimed the documents were surprise gifts from their sponsors in Asunción, alleging they had no idea they were fraudulent, despite neither having applied for Paraguayan citizenship. One theory is that the brothers may have intended to use the passports to obtain an E-2 investor visa for the U.S, for which Paraguayan citizens are eligible, not Brazilians.

The deal. In order to return to Brazil and have the investigation dropped, Ronaldinho and his brother confessed to the crime of using fake documents, but not producing or commissioning them. They have agreed to pay a USD 200,000 fine in exchange for the right to leave Paraguay.

Once Ronaldinho and Assis are ‘out of the picture,’ Paraguayan prosecutors will turn their attentions to business owner Dalia López, accused by the brothers as being the mastermind of the fake passport scandal. Ms. Lopez is the owner of the NGO that brought Ronaldinho to Asunción in March, sponsoring the launch of his Spanish-language autobiography. Her firm is under investigation for money laundering, and Ms. López is currently on the run, with her lawyer claiming there is a “price on her head.”

Scheduling madness for Brazilian football in 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic prompted a major reshuffle in the 2020 Brazilian football season. The national championship, which usually runs from May to December, will now extend until February of next year. As a result, there was an expectation that 2021 would be a reduced-size ‘adjustment season,’ but the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) didn’t get the memo.

Full steam ahead. The CBF has announced a jam-packed schedule for 2021, with Brazil’s state and national championships going on as normal. Players will be given no preseason break, finishing this year’s national league and jumping straight back into state-championship play.

International duty. Major sides are set to suffer an additional disadvantage from this football timetable, as the 2021 Brazilian season will coincide with an equally frantic year of international football. Despite a Copa América and a slew of backdated World Cup qualifiers on the cards for next year, Brazilian football will not stop for anything. Therefore, players who represent their national teams could miss up to 18 games of the 2021 Brazilian championship — almost half the league season.

What else you should know

  • Record figures. In Brazil, the broadcasting rights for Sunday’s final belonged to Turner, a subsidiary of WarnerMedia, representing a break with the tradition of free-to-air behemoths TV Globo showing the Champions League final nationwide. Turner’s TNT channel recorded the highest viewing figures in the history of Brazilian pay-TV, while their official Facebook stream of the match hit the stunning milestone of 4.2 million concurrent viewers during the second half, a world record for a sporting event.
  • Serie A. The Brazilian championship rounds off its fifth matchday in midweek, since its hurried return from the Covid-19 pandemic stoppage. At this early stage, with eight sides still having a game in hand, southern club Internacional lead the way with four wins and one loss. Having played one fewer game, Vasco da Gama are unbeaten in second, while Jorge Sampaoli’s Atlético-MG have been the league’s most entertaining side so far — they sit in third.
  • Abuse in gymnastics. An internal audit at Esporte Clube Pinheiros, the sports club that invests the most in Olympic sports in Brazil, has unveiled a litany of racial and psychological abuse of its gymnasts committed by coaching staff. The reporting team at Esporte Espetacular got a hold of the report and showed numerous examples of abuse suffered by young gymnasts, aged up to 15 years old. Poorer athletes, who receive scholarships to represent the club, were threatened with having their funding cut off and “left to go hungry.” 
  • Beach bubble. The heads of Brazil’s beach volleyball championship have announced that 2020 competitions will go ahead next month, using the NBA’s ‘bubble league’ strategy to mitigate the risks of Covid-19 infections.
Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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