Heart Of Football

Heart of Football: Birthday boy Neymar party to speculation as an enigma

How short the memories are. This time last year, after Barcelona were beaten 4-0 in Paris, the critics fawned over Neymar rather than Messi when Barca overturned that deficit to win 6-1 in the Camp Nou.

The most fantastic comeback in European club history. Neymar had predicted it, and performed it. "While there is one per cent chance," he said the night of the first leg, "we have 99 per cent faith."

That night's performance helped sell Neymar to PSG for €222 million euros (S$361 million).

Those who sat in the Bernabeu last Wednesday, or in far-off TV studios, jumped to a lot of conclusions. Their comparisons between Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo cut deepest.

"We are creating a monster, and the problem is that some think he is a genius," said the former Brazil striker Walter Casagrande on SportTV. "He doesn't have the quality of Messi, Maradona or Cristiano Ronaldo, who can change a game at any time."

There was truth and disingenuousness in Casagrande's summary.

The former Brazil player, of the 1980s, tallied eight goals in 19 games for his country. Neymar so far has 53 goals in 83 games.

The Neymar-Ronaldo comparison at the Bernabeu invited misleading conclusions. For much of the game, Neymar was too full of himself, and the Portuguese almost invisible. Rob Hughes

Casagrande was as mercenary in his time as Neymar is today. The former striker moved 12 times during his career and, following a heroin overdose that almost killed him, Casagrande confessed that he took drugs back in the day when he played for FC Porto.

No doubt that was on the mind of Neymar Sr, the father and agent of the PSG idol. "In the footballing world," Neymar Sr wrote on Instagram, "we know a lot of people who act like vultures and sometimes take advantage of a microphone and a career as a player."

The elder Neymar added: "I don't say athlete, because they had questionable behaviour off the field."

On and off the field, Neymar Jr attempts to play to his own tune.

He put on a swanky-late night party in Paris to celebrate his 26th birthday on Feb 6. Neymar paid for many of the guests to fly in, and in a sequinned dinner jacket and a hat perched on his head, he was lauded on stage by DJ Snake and Brazilian singer Rodriguinho.

 “He doesn’t have the quality of Messi
Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar at half-time during the Champions League game on Wednesday. Real came from behind to win 3-1 and former Brazil striker Walter Casagrande said of Neymar: “He doesn’t have the quality of Messi, Maradona or Cristiano Ronaldo, who can change a game at any time.”PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Harmless fun? It was more than a week before the Madrid game, and Qatar Sports Investments, owners of PSG, were represented at the party by club chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

A Brazilian is entitled to have fun; indeed, the former Brazil scorer Romario was noted for partying through the night much closer to games than Neymar.

Football has to be responsible, and it has to conform to collectivism, Casagrande implied.

So is Neymar such a spoilt child that Brazil fears for its World Cup a few months from now?

The Neymar-Cristiano Ronaldo comparison at the Bernabeu invited misleading conclusions.

For much of the game, during which PSG led and outplayed Madrid, Neymar was too full of himself, and the Portuguese almost invisible. However, Ronaldo did as Ronaldo does - he slam-dunked a penalty kick, and he was in the right place at the right time to score a second goal off his kneecap.

Neymar? Well, 13 dribbles (more than either side combined) came to a mesmerising nothing. He dazzled. His exquisite harmony of balance and movement flattered to deceive.

He was booked for a silly foul, and he should have gone off after the Italian referee ruled that the Brazilian dived, but didn't have the courage to send him off.

Shades there of the opening game of the 2014 World Cup when Neymar could - should - have been red-carded for elbowing an opponent in the head.

And the mathematicians who spend their evening counting stats rather than looking for art tell us that not once did Neymar and Edinson Cavani exchange passes.

Neither, for that matter, did Ronaldo and his French running partner Karim Benzema.

In fact, it might soon be all over for their partnership. Reports persist that Real Madrid will soon call time on CR7, Benzema, Gareth Bale, the lot of them.

Replaced by? Neymar and Eden Hazard and Harry Kane are just three names on the grapevine. The name game, and the blame game, make the rumour mill go round.

Were I Brazilian, I might share Casagrande's suspicion that Neymar is an erratic talent around whom to build a World Cup side.

The reality is that modern stars live for the moment. The tournament in Russia is still half a season away, ambition (and salaries to lavish on extravagant birthday bashes) is built around the Champions League.

Tuesday night, Chelsea versus Barcelona, is the next big happening.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'Birthday boy Neymar still an enigma and not yet a great'. Print Edition | Subscribe