The second-best thing that he has ever done is score THAT goal against Flamengo in which he made a defender question his decision to play professional soccer and the existence of happiness in this world. The third was his very necessary rainbow flick against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey Final that almost started a brawl. Barcelona were already up 3-1 and it was done for the sole reason of making the defender feel bad. His smirk as Xavi led him to safety has to be the defining picture of his personality and career.
This last game though — this comeback against PSG after being down 4-0 from the first leg, something that hasn’t been done in 62 years, in which he scored the fourth and fifth goals before setting up the winner for Sergi Roberto in extra time — was, in his own words, “the best game I’ve ever played.”
When no one else did, Neymar believed. And when no one else tried, he fought.
In that horrid first leg for Barcelona, when Lionel Messi was conceding possession that led to goals and Luis Suárez was paying tribute to H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, it was Neymar — who had struggled to walk, gritting his teeth, and limping about after a mysterious left foot injury in the first half — who pushed the agenda.
The PSG goals kept coming, but Neymar never stopped. Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, all of their heads dropped and their motivations waned as the situation became untenable. Neymar kept driving forward. He played one-twos with Suárez, and nutmegged Adrien Rabiot and other defenders who had forgotten that their opponent still held an “embarrass defenders first” policy to his game, no matter how bad his team situation was.
Neymar sped past Marco Verratti and left him on the floor after his laughable attempt to slide tackle a much faster opponent. He took on one, two, three defenders at a time, lost the ball, suffered fouls, played unsuccessful floated balls into the area, drew attention, and tried to create for his teammates. And then when that didn’t yield results, he tried to do everything on his own.
Had the rest of the team given half of the effort that Neymar did in that first game (and maybe if Luis Enrique hadn’t invited that demolition by picking André Gomes ahead of Rafinha and Ivan Rakitic), they wouldn’t have needed a miraculous comeback.
Yet they did, and he was once again present.
A few minutes into what was supposed to be a formality by the Parisian side, right before Suárez would head in the first goal and ignite the idea that hope was not absurd, Neymar had Verratti on the floor once again.
Neymar cut and sped inside from the left, and, as Verratti started to run with him, he stepped on the ball and stopped completely. It took the midfielder by surprise and made him fall like a cartoon character: with his legs sputtering to regain balance, his upper body turning towards, and his arms grasping at Neymar, who had to delight in this struggle. Verratti fell flat on his face as if he had slipped on a Mario Kart banana peel.
Few things are as exciting in the game of soccer as when Neymar has the ball at his feet. It’s the sporting equivalent of Hot 97’s Summer Jam screen. Someone is always bound to get embarrassed. He gets the ball and raises his head and there’s an immediate realization by the audience — and even by the defender himself, who must feel as he’s cornered by an apex predator — that something breathtaking could happen.
This ability saw him denounced as a YouTube footballer long ago. All shine and no substance, meant for the highlights but not the trophy cabinet.
How silly that was! To deny magic as superfluous. Neymar has the greatest gift any player could have. He is grown from the same root that this complete Messi stemmed from. He has the spark of Ronaldinho, of Ronaldo, Diego Maradona, Rivaldo, and Luís Figo. He is fast, intelligent, and utterly unpredictable with the ball.
He could always be taught to defend. He was willing to learn and work. He could be taught to keep his head up and look for others. To track back. To not try to do it all alone, especially at Barcelona where his teammates are some of the best in the world. He could have always been molded into what he is today: an irrepressible player.
Because he had that divine and rare talent to turn lead into gold from the onset. The audacity to wriggle out of triple teams as if the defenders were mere children. The feet that moved faster than the opponent’s eyes. The arrogance to take on an entire defense and score goals that needed at least 10 replays before they could be believed. All he needed was a team like Barcelona, where he didn’t have to be the immediate superstar and could address the defects to his game in relative peace.
He’s always had the vision that the impossible could be done, regardless of how unreasonable the situation, and he’s never stopped trying to accomplish it.
The Olympics could not deny him in the summer. He finally won with Brazil. PSG couldn’t do it in the second leg, and the world can’t do so anymore.
Comebacks happen, but not of this magnitude. Especially not after Edison Cavani scored the away goal on the 62nd minute mark. They had Suarez, who did his part, and Messi, still the best player in the world, but as the time waned, the impossible grew more difficult. They needed three goals in seven minutes to advance.
So, Neymar came to fore. He goaded Ángel Di María into a silly foul outside the left side of the box. No one stood with him under the pretense that they would take it. Not even Messi. He wiped his face, ran up, and curled the ball into the top corner of the near post. Then Suárez dove and won a penalty. And up came Neymar again to take the spot kick, something that has been famously unkind to the Barcelona forwards. But not in that situation. As with Brazil in the summer, Neymar wouldn’t falter. A stutter-step and side foot finish into the right of the net and the win seemed inevitable. PSG were in shock.
Finally, he became provider to turn hope into victory, lead to gold again. With Marc-André ter Stegen joining the attack for one final chance, Neymar spun his defender around with a fake pass 25 yards out, took the ball to the inside, onto his left, and lofted it over the defense to a running Sergi Roberto. Serge Aurier had bizarrely decided to not go with his counterpart. Kevin Trapp dove to the left and Roberto directed the ball to the right. The deed was done and at the helm of the greatest comeback in European history was the player who has been admonished for everything from his goal output to haircuts.
Those criticisms all look childish now. Even when he’s not scoring, he’s as dangerous as ever, as the first leg showed. And he usually subverts his lack of goals by working hard elsewhere. He’s so much more than what he’s been given credit for. And when he’s on form, when he decides that seven minutes is an eternity and that three goals is a walk in the park, few players are more fun to watch. Messi is still king, but Neymar is sitting right next to him, waiting and proving that he’s worthy of the throne, game after game.