Scroll down through the 507 submissions for the FIFA The Best men’s player of the year, or the 10-goal shortlist for the Puskas Award, or the FIFPro team of the year, and the same names keep coming up, except for one that does not.
Neymar, the most expensive footballer in history, the €222million man, was nowhere to be seen. Because he did not even make the 10-man shortlist for the player of the year award, as chosen by a penal of famous ex-players and coaches in late July. They had to look back over last season and the World Cup. And who can blame them for the choices they made?
Neymar left Barcelona to escape Lionel Messi’s shadow and win individual awards.
Out of 1514 total votes by media, Captains, and Managers around the world for “The Best” award, Neymar received 0 votes. 😳 pic.twitter.com/fTXZl0yFQz
https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsThe absence of Neymar from last night’s ceremony was an entirely deserved response to a year in which he has achieved almost nothing on the pitch. The only clip the organisers showed of him last night, amid all the showboating and glory, was Neymar despairing on the pitch as Brazil were knocked out of the World Cup quarter-finals by Belgium. But that defeat, and the World Cup campaign overall, has come to define Neymar’s year more than anything else.
You do not walk out on Barcelona, for a release clause that no-one ever thought would be met, to a club with limitless ambition and money, unless you want to make a splash. Neymar did not move to PSG to improve as a player, because how could you when you move to a worse team in a worse league. He moved to become the biggest star in world football.
But there is no route to football stardom that does not run through the strongest leagues and the biggest tournaments in the world. For Neymar to be recognised at The Best on Monday night, as he would desperately have wanted to be, he needed to do something in the Champions League or the World Cup. Because his Ligue 1 title, won by PSG with five games to spare, is one of the least consequential or interesting title wins in football history.
The Champions League was where Neymar wanted to make an impression. He had already won it once, in 2015 with Barcelona, but now he wanted to win it again, by himself. But when Neymar and PSG went to the Bernabeu in the last-16 in February, Neymar was so desperate to dominate the game by himself, holding onto the ball for as long as possible, that he slowed his team down, and could do nothing as they lost 3-1. PSG were knocked out back in Paris, Real won their third European Cup in a row.
That could all have been forgotten if Neymar had a good a World Cup. That had always been the goal, and not many players are lucky enough to go into one of these tournaments at the age of 26, playing for a team as strong as Brazil, with good team-mates and a chance of winning the title. And yet everyone’s overriding memory of Neymar from Russia was his histrionics and play-acting. Even opening the scoring against Mexico was overshadowed by his behaviour on the touchline later in that game.
And when it really mattered, up against Belgium in the quarter-finals, Neymar could not turn the game his team’s way. Just as he could not for PSG back in February. If Brazil had won that game, who knows whether they could have beaten France in the semi-final or Croatia after that. But Neymar had to leave the World Cup having barely made an impression on it. By the time of Qatar 2022, he will be 30.
If Neymar had watched The Best awards on Monday night, or even just looked at the 10-man shortlist that he did not make, he will have seen a series of players living his own dream. Thibaut Courtois, best goalkeeper, part of the Belgium team that denied him in Kazan and won the bronze medal at the World Cup. Mohamed Salah, who inspired an outside run to the Champions League final with his individual brilliance, just what Neymar wanted to do but could not, and scoring a wonderful goal in a derby that won him the Puskas Award. Luka Modric, who dragged his country all the way to the World Cup final, having pocketed his fourth Champions League medal just beforehand. Or Kylian Mbappe, who won the World Cup itself, at the age of 19, and beat PSG-teammate Neymar to a spot on the FIFPro team of the year too.
Almost everyone there had done something that Neymar had wanted to, but failed. 14 months after the biggest transfer in football history, it made you wonder what the point of it all was.