While this World Cup has had its share of great stories, the overarching one that started well before the tournament was Lionel Messi. This is his tournament, whatever Argentina does. Either it’s the last great failure of him (it’s never by him when it comes to Argentina). It’s always that the rest of the team have failed to live up to his standard, which is mostly true but also not really how a team is supposed to work. Or this World Cup is his final affirmation, the one thing he needs to be officially labeled the best of all-time. Which is pretty silly, because Messi’s resume isn’t really going to be all that different whether Argentina win two more games or not out of the hundreds he’s played.
Neymar is now, to most, a failure. Which is strange, because Neymar finally had his moment. As strange a sport as soccer is, we still put basketball-like pressure on it where we want the best player to get the ball when it counts most (that crash you hear is all England fans falling over at the moment). Soccer doesn’t really work like that. You can’t set up a series of screens to get your guy the ball, and even if he does, scoring a goal is still the hardest thing to do in sports, given the frequency with which it doesn’t happen.
And yet Neymar got the ball. And he produced one of the most beautiful goals in this tournament. The intricacy, the precision, the creativity, not only did it look like the most important goal in his career and most important goal for Brazil in some 20 years, but it was a goal that only a select few could score. How many times have you seen a player round a keeper like that only to make the angle too tight and have to take another touch that closes the window? Or put their finish into the side netting? To make those two passes, and receive two passes, that softly and under control in such tight spaces, it’s ludicrous.
It felt like THE moment. It was as if Michael Jordan hit that last shot in Utah, except it was a fadeaway three over a double-team. This was basically the soccer version of Montana-to-Clark or Elway’s Drive. Not just dramatic and heroic, but also a brilliant display of galactic skill.
And now it’s just a bit of trivia. It’s Josh Allen’s drive against the Chiefs. And it’ll eventually be used against him, probably by people like me, and by that I mean me.
I’ve been in the “Maybe Neymar just isn’t that guy” crowd for a while. And we can use the past six seasons to prove that, if we pick what we want. PSG have never won the Champions League, and even biffed Ligue Un once. Neymar has been on the field for some of those choke-jobs, and sometimes he hasn’t, but even when he hasn’t that’s been a strike against him, because being available is a skill too. Brazil won the Copa America without him, not with him.
Brazil’s tactics against Croatia didn’t help. Because Brazil’s manager, Tite, doesn’t push the fullbacks forward much. Croatia found it pretty easy, at least until extra time, to double up on Raphina and Vinicius Jr. outside. They both want to cut into the middle from wide, and that’s where Croatia had everything jammed up. Neymar kept pulling out wide to the left, and then trying to dribble inside, which didn’t really work. Brazil needed someone to hit a cross-field ball to get either of their wingers isolated. They kept trying to pick their way through the middle. Which didn’t work, until it did, obviously. Neymar busted through, in a way that only Neymar can. That’s everything people like me said he wouldn’t do.
Which makes it feel like Brazil’s plan always hinges on Neymar. They looked great against Serbia and Korea with him. They looked pretty flat against Switzerland and Cameroon without him. Given how everything was supposed to get back to the middle, it was meant to connect with him. But it’s Neymar, and shouldn’t you do your utmost to get everything out of him you can? Or if you’re an asshole like me, do you say that he makes teams go through him, much like Ronaldo, whether it makes sense at all times or not? It’s whatever you want to see.
PSG have moved away from him being the center of everything obviously, to the point where the new gravitational force, Kylian Mbappe, has actively tried to get him booted from the club (reportedly). But Brazil don’t have an Mbappe or Messi. They have a lot of really good players, but none of them are on Neymar’s level.
And yet neither does Argentina when it comes to Messi. And they’ve made every game a slog, even when they’ve had games in hand like their quarterfinal against the Dutch. They haven’t strolled through anything at all. But they won a penalty shootout, Brazil didn’t, and the memory will take from it is that Messi came through and Neymar didn’t. Even though Argentina blew a two-goal lead and Brazil only a one. The coin flip went the Albiceleste’s way, not the Selecao’s.
The funny thing is the images after each game was Neymar embracing Ivan Perisic’s son while Messi was shit-talking Louis van Gaal in the aftermath of their win. Which is the complete opposite personalities we generally think of these two in. Full disclosure, I am absolutely here for anyone shit-talking LvG, who is a true marvel of existence that he’s made it to his 70s while spending five hours a day blowing himself. Maybe that’s the secret.
Neymar says he might retire from the Brazilian team now, though it was said in the aftermath of the heartbreak. It’s hard to see that, though right after being eliminated from a World Cup you were expected, demanded to win, four years must seem like the longest amount of time on Earth. Maybe with time we’ll come to realize that previous Brazil teams just weren’t up to the level we thought, much like those previous Argentina teams. Because even if like me you never thought Neymar was THAT GUY, he was on Friday, and everyone else made sure it didn’t matter. Maybe that’s been the story all along.