England will come up against a Brazil side featuring the world’s most expensive player at Wembley on Tuesday night – but ahead of the hotly-anticipated friendly clash, Neymar, and speculation over his future, has been making headlines.
The Brazilian star, who Paris St-Germain paid Barcelona £200m for this summer, may have hit the ground running in terms of his on-field contributions for the Ligue 1 leaders, but reported clashes with coaches and team-mates, coupled with suggestions he is already pining for a return to Spain, have created a storm of media interest in the 25-year-old ahead of his appearance in London.
But is Neymar unhappy at PSG, barely four months in to his French adventure?
The forward was close to tears this week when he launched an outburst against media reports he had fallen out with PSG boss Unai Emery and team-mate Edinson Cavani.
“I’m here because I asked to be here,” he said. “It’s going really well, I’m really happy here and motivated.”
Natalie Gedra of ESPN Brazil discusses whether Neymar is unhappy and the pressure surrounding the Brazilian at the moment
His emotions were running high again when Brazil boss Tite defended Neymar’s character, with the player eventually walking out of the press conference.
But there have been issues. There was the infamous on-field clash with Cavani over free-kick and penalty taking duties against Lyon and reports of a dressing room clash between the pair after Neymar tried to pull rank on PSG’s designated set-piece taker.
In the aftermath there were even claims Cavani had been offered money to relinquish his role to the new arrival. Whatever the truth, Neymar was on dead-ball duties from then on.
That’s not to say Neymar isn’t pulling his weight for the team. Principally recruited to fire PSG to Champions League glory, he has scored 11 times in his 12 appearances for his new club and recorded seven assists.
But the disquiet and distractions won’t go away. Newspapers in France have also reported training ground disagreements between Neymar and Emery, ranging from the Brazilian’s work ethic to his lack of interest in his manager’s carefully collated video analysis sessions.
Significantly, Marcelo Bechler, the Brazilian journalist who broke the news Neymar would be leaving Barcelona for PSG, reported over the weekend that the player had told former Barca team-mates, Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez, he regretted the move to Paris.
Tantalisingly, Bechler even told Brazilian radio Neymar wouldn’t consider a move to Barcelona’s arch rivals Real Madrid as a betrayal.
It is important to remember, though, that noise, speculation and rumour have followed Neymar throughout his career. A teenage sensation in his homeland, he has been in the glare of the media’s spotlight for a decade.
Natalie Gedra, a journalist from ESPN Brazil, was a guest on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement, and, having seen Neymar’s emergence at Santos and his development in Europe, says the enormous pressure on the player is something few, if any other, elite footballer will experience.
“At the age of 14 he was already a star, everybody was watching him,” she said. “When he made his debut as a professional there were always these high expectations. He always managed to pull it off. He always dealt really well with the pressure. He’s been dealing with pressure for over 10 years – but I think now maybe it’s getting to that limit.
Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and their Brazil team-mates train at Craven Cottage ahead of their friendly against England at Wembley
“You’re the most expensive player in the history of football, you have this responsibility of taking PSG to winning the Champions League, but at the same time you have to be humble and nice to everybody.
“So I think he’s having a hard time reconciling everything. He’s 25 and it’s hard.
“Him leaving Barcelona for PSG – at first I couldn’t understand it. But maybe at the end of the season PSG will win the Champions League with him scoring in the final and everyone is going to say, ‘wow, what a great idea PSG had signing Neymar’. But if that doesn’t happen it’s going to be a complete failure. So that will be a different spot to be on.
“Either you are a hero and after the bold decision to leave Barcelona you’re about to be the best player in the world – or it’s ‘what did you do, why did you leave Barcelona?’ There’s no middle ground with Neymar.”
Beyond all of the transfer talk, though, Neymar remains a major attraction for what he can do on the field. There was a penalty scored and a penalty missed in Brazil’s friendly win over Japan on Friday and spectators on Tuesday will head to Wembley intrigued by what tricks and moments of magic Neymar could conjure up against Gareth Southgate’s England.
For the player, though, the ultimate goal with the national team will not be far from his mind. After helping Brazil deliver their long-coveted Olympic gold medal in Rio last year, Neymar knows World Cup glory in Russia next summer will propel him into the league of his country’s all-time greats.
“If you compare him to Ronaldo, for instance, it’s different because he won the World Cup and he has this beautiful history of overcoming challenges and injuries,” said Gedra, when assessing Neymar’s standing in Brazilian football.
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“For sure Neymar isn’t there yet but in a few years, perhaps – it depends on what he is going to add to the national team’s history. He seems happy to be there and I think that’s really important. People like him, the players like him, the coach likes him.”
That talent, that potential and that appeal makes Neymar attractive to fans and rival clubs alike – and ensures that as long as he’s exciting on the pitch, there will be speculation off it about where he’s going next.