As Paris St-Germain reflect on what might have been after their 1-0 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League final on Sunday night, one also can’t help but wonder what might have been for the French giants had the world’s most expensive player stuck to his task and not reverted to frustrating type.
With PSG chasing the game in the second half, trailing Bayern after Kingsley Coman’s 59th-minute strike, the infuriating Brazilian superstar Neymar began the antics that the whole football-watching world had hoped he had put behind him.
After a slight tap on the shin-pad by Bayern’s Serge Gnabry, Neymar plunged to the floor, writhing in faux agony and clutching his ankle like a man in need of an amputation.
It was all too familiar and saddening to see for anyone who can remember his farcical behaviour while on international duty with Brazil at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he was (in)famously clocked at spending 14 minutes on the deck in one game and became the laughable focus of countless social media memes and gifs.
What makes it so infuriating is that Neymar had been free from injury during PSG’s run to the final this season, playing some of the best football of his career and seemingly ready to step out of the shadow of former Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi’s shadow and take centre stage as a global football hero in his own right.
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Neymar looked like he had grown into the man he always showed the potential to become. In the absence of his star strike partner Kylian Mbappe in the quarter-final against Atalanta, he carried PSG with aplomb and maturity, relying on his skills and flair rather than cynical tactics.
Again in the semi-final, he showed the brilliance of his youth, combined with a more experienced head to guide the French side past RB Leipzig and into their first Champions League final.
So the stage was set for Neymar the man to become Neymar the true great against the formidable Bayern Munich. Indeed, during a thrilling first half it looked like the long-promised show could become a reality. Only Manuel Neuer in the Bayern goal — having one of the best matches of his career — halted a promising Neymar move, blocking with his left ankle and hand, then scrambling to slap down the Brazilian’s bid to tap the rebound into a dangerous spot.
This was Neymar at his best, and even Neuer would eventually be beaten had the forward simply stuck to his task and relied on his natural skills. PSG were only one goal down and a moment of brilliance that we know the Brazilian is capable of could have changed everything. Instead it was Neymar rolling around like a child, breaking up the rhythm of PSG’s attacking play and wasting precious time that he and his teammates would need if they were to force an equaliser.
It was not PSG’s night, and Neymar was in tears at the end. Had he shown some sense and maturity, the story could have oh so different. As it is, a massive chance has been blown again by Neymar as soon as he is up against stronger opponents. He may be waiting a long time for another chance like this and instead of being remembered as one of the greats, he is in danger of being remembered as a choker who promised so much but failed to deliver when it mattered most.