Modern football works at such a pace that it can be hard to keep up.
One week Neymar is one third of an iconic and seemingly unbreakable attacking alliance at Barcelona; the next he’s being paraded in France as the new King of Paris and the most expensive player of all-time, having been pinched from Barca for €250m.
As football moves faster and the money involved becomes more ridiculous, football fans need reliable and relatable stories to really make sense of what’s going on. The money may change, the tactics may get more complex, but the story of football is still one of people; of how of 11 people collected in one place to try and best 11 other people over 90 minutes.
And every so often the story becomes of how one person wants their tale to be told loudest. How one person wants to be known as The Man.
"You can serve in Heaven, or you can rule in Hell. That was Neymar's choice."
Neymar’s task is an almost impossible one: at Barcelona he was their heir apparent, the one to take over once Messi is “done”. The sidekick. The second banana. Barcelona may have used some inventive accounting to get Neymar, but he was never going to be the most important piece of a Barcelona team as long as Messi was there.
Neymar’s performance in the last 10 minutes at Camp Nou against Paris Saint-Germain last season is a near perfect attacking display. Goal, assist, penalty - three goals in seven and a half minutes - red hot creativity combined with ice in the veins calm.
Come the game’s conclusion, the most viewed photo is not one of Neymar, but one of Lionel Messi. Neymar announces himself in a historic performance, and 70 million people look at a photo of another.
A post shared by soccerbible (@soccerbible) on Mar 7, 2017 at 11:19am PST
The story of the frustrated number two is one told over and over again. It is the story of Cain, it is the story of Iago, it is the story of Starscream. Do you want to be the able follower, or do you want to take a chance and be a leader? You can serve in Heaven or you can rule in Hell. You can be Scottie Pippen or you can be Carmelo Anthony.
So Neymar left. He left as a great Barcelona player for the chance to be the great Paris Saint-Germain player. The generational talent has done something football fans often talk about but never truly give thought and action to: he’s taken the hard choice to secure his legacy.
Neymar knows what he is doing. In going to a “weaker” league in France, he knows his story lives or dies by how many Champions Leagues he wins for PSG. He knows that for all the goals, for all the assists, for all the free kicks he can get against the likes of Guingamp, Nantes and Toulouse, in going to Paris Saint-Germain, his story has now become one of hypotheticals.
Instead of aiming to be as good as Messi at Barcelona, Neymar has instead opted to take on Messi at Barcelona.
"Messi is evidence that short men can leave large shadows. Until now, this has been his era."
Messi is evidence that short men can leave large shadows. Be it through accident or design, this is the era of Messi. Through Messi, we have entered a new state of sports stories and discussion. Where the Ballon d’Or goes from being a nice end of season award from French football writers to becoming the ultimate goal for the likes of Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard and Harry Kane.
The era of Messi has given us the perfection of the false nine, three historic attacking front threes at Barcelona and the greatest footballing rivalry of all time. The era of Messi has given us the era of The Man. That is what Neymar is trying to replace.
€250 million is a lot of money, but that’s the price for being The Man; and as a great man once said, to be The Man, you gotta beat The Man.
It’s Neymar’s world now; we’re all living in it.
Illustration by Pedro Demetriou.