By TALES AZZONI
When Neymar was preparing to play for Brazil at his first World Cup back in 2014, the hype surrounding him was considerable.
He had just moved from Santos to Spanish club Barcelona as one of the most promising young players in the world. And he had impressed early on with the Catalan club, quickly gaining the status of star in the world of soccer.
The common questions surrounding Neymar at the time were about when — not if — he would be crowned the best in the world.
Fast forward eight years, though, and things have changed considerably. The Brazilian remains one of the top players in the world, but he has failed to fully meet the expectations that came along his high-profile move to Europe.
Neymar lost visibility after joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, and it’s been a while since he has been in consideration for the best player of the year awards.
His performances with Brazil in World Cups have mostly disappointed since the 2014 tournament at home, when he was carried off on a stretcher because of a back injury in the quarterfinals. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Neymar crouched on the field and stared in disbelief as the Belgium players celebrated their victory over Brazil in the last eight.
He was crucial for Brazil when the country won its first Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, a feat that was celebrated widely nationwide and earned him widespread praise.
But at 30 years old, the questions surrounding Neymar ahead of the World Cup in Qatar are a bit different.
Did he make a mistake by leaving Barcelona to join PSG? Is he being overshadowed by Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé? Is he past his peak?
But for Neymar, the only question that really matters is whether he can come through for Brazil and lead the national team to its first World Cup title in 20 years.
“I don’t want to let this World Cup get away from me,” Neymar said earlier this year. “I don’t want to let this opportunity slip through my hands. I’m doing everything possible to prepare for it, physically and mentally. It is my biggest dream right now. I’m focused on winning this title.”
This year’s World Cup could mean redemption for Neymar, and if he does find a way to lead Brazil to the title in Qatar, his name will most likely be back at the top of the award lists.
“I’ll give my life at the World Cup,” Neymar said in a chat with former Brazil midfielder Diego Ribas. “It’s a unique moment. I’ve been through two World Cups and I now how it works. Everything happens really fast, and if you are not at your 100%, if you are not prepared, the opportunity passes by you.”
Neymar, who said as a youngster his dream was to be the best player in the world, has been doing well this season again and is one of the leaders of a PSG team that hopes to finally win its first Champions League title. He enters the World Cup — which he doesn’t rule out as being his last one — as one of the most in-form players.
“He is flying right now,” Brazil coach Tite said.
Neymar apparently hasn’t been affected by the recent fraud trial regarding his 2013 transfer from Santos to Barcelona, where he and his father are among those accused of hiding the real cost of the transfer. He is facing a prison sentence of more than two years if found guilty, though some of the chargers against him have been dropped.
Tite is undoubtedly relying on Neymar to take the helm and lead Brazil in Qatar, hoping that his talent — and now his maturity — will finally make the difference and give the national team a chance to win its first World Cup title since 2002, when Neymar was still only 10.
And hopefully for Brazil, instead of leaving the field on a stretcher like in 2014 or watching opponents celebrate like in 2018, Neymar will end his World Cup run by lifting the trophy for his team and his people.
FILE – Brazil’s Neymar celebrates after scoring his side’s opening goal from the penalty spot during a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 against Chile at Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thursday, March 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)