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Neymar’s Burden

The Qatari-backed millions that have fueled PSG’s rise have failed to deliver the Champions League victory and global prestige that the country and club so desperately want. That failure rests most heavily on the shoulders of the world’s most expensive player.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

None of us have ever been Neymar. We can never imagine what it is to inhabit his boots—none of us, not even his teammates, not even his fellow forward, the extraordinarily expensive Kylian Mbappé. By one statistical measure, Neymar may be the loneliest human being ever to have played professional sport. There is probably no other athlete whose services have been acquired at such a fee so that they may deliver on one specific occasion. Yet that is the fate that Neymar willingly embraced. Paris Saint-Germain parted with the astonishing sum of 222 million euros in 2017 so that Neymar would play a decisive role in precisely one game: the UEFA Champions League final. That was his mission: to return the trophy to the city where it was conceived. Yet, instead of finding the net in Sunday’s final against Bayern Munich, instead of outfoxing goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and writing his name across history, he missed vital chances, just as he had done at previous stages of this tournament. When history called upon Neymar to be Caesar, he came, he saw, he squandered.

We have all been Neymar. We have all put our faith in a love or a plan or a dream that didn’t work out. But few, if any of us, have ever done so publicly, or at such scale. Against Bayern, Neymar went on bended knee in front of an audience of millions, asking footballing history to marry him. And history said no.

Neuer said no, as he would say no throughout Bayern’s 1-0 win. What a strange thing it is to be a goalkeeper; what an odd job description it has. One wonders, at times, how Neuer introduces himself at social events. One wonders whether he says, “I am the goalkeeper for Bayern Munich,” or whether, with a slight smirk, he reveals that “I deny people for a living.” He denied Neymar on Sunday, scrambling backward to fend the ball away in the first half. For the Brazilian, history was just one lunge out of reach.

Or maybe Neymar denied himself. There were hints in earlier games in Lisbon that his failure to finish might cost him. Like all good novelists, he carefully foreshadowed the tragedy to come. Against Atalanta in the quarterfinal, against RB Leipzig in the semifinal, he was unable to convert opportunities that he would take without a moment’s thought when at his best. His misses were inexplicable to his teammates and to himself. And yet there they were. They were the trailer, and his trauma upon defeat by Bayern was the feature film.

There is a scene in The Wire when Omar Little, a uniquely audacious thief, is preparing to act as a witness in an upcoming trial. When he is asked by the police if he will feel nerves when he is on the stand, he fixes them with a glare and calmly responds, “Omar don’t scare.” It’s probable that, had you dared to question Neymar’s nerve on the eve of the final against Bayern, his eyes would have taken on a similar intensity; they would have coolly told you, “Neymar don’t scare.”

Because Neymar doesn’t scare. Not in the World Cup in his own country, and certainly not in the Champions League. He didn’t scare in this competition during Barcelona’s triumph in 2015, when he became the first player to score in both legs of the quarterfinal, the semifinal, and the final itself. During that glorious run of form, he had even scored past Neuer, so, in theory, Sunday’s game was not new territory for him.

In another sense, of course, it was new territory for everyone. It’s possibly the greatest sporting wager ever placed. Funded by Qatari-backed millions, PSG have been in desperate pursuit of the prestige that comes with winning the Champions League. Neymar is the most prized of players to help achieve that ambition. But somehow, with the finish line in sight, he failed to carry PSG to glory.

Those who watch Neymar often, be they his lovers or detractors, will know that he has a special relationship with the turf. Sometimes he glides across it, supremely as an Olympic figure skater; at other times, he is spread across it in apparent agony, his face pressed against the grass as if he were listening to its pulse. He is widely criticized for how quickly he plunges to earth after he is fouled, often with good reason; yet he is not so readily praised, as he should be, for the bravery with which he seeks out pain. There are few sets of ankles in world football that have been so passionately hacked as those of Neymar. Against Bayern, whose defenders wished to mark the grand occasion in style, Neymar doubtless received various commemorative bruises.

If Neymar had starred, if PSG had become champions of Europe, then this week’s media would be full of concern about how Qatar had bought themselves a whole new reserve of soft power. There have already been several strong pieces of commentary to that effect, but what is maybe most notable is that a single brilliant forward, a striker in the form of a surfer, could be considered as a key geopolitical tool. Just imagine if, somewhere in the minutes of a Qatari government meeting, there is a foreign policy bullet point that simply reads: “Get Neymar.”

None of us have ever been Neymar, and this past weekend showed us in some sense how relieved we should be that we are not. To be Neymar is to be in a job where you are paid for a thousand days of work, and only one actually matters. To be Neymar is to be so awash with cash that your moment of greatest misery is a matter of sustained international mockery. In footballing terms, Neymar is the avatar of Qatar: His face is as central to its project as the maroon on its flag. He has long carried the sporting burden of the nation of his birth, and now, for a substantial wage, he carries the burden of another. The combined hope of two states is an unprecedented weight to bear: Maybe, under a weight like that, destiny escapes everyone.