A 21st century football brand fueled by endless promise; a nouveau-riche social, commercial and cultural phenomena; a superstar who’s no stranger to the scrutiny of the public eye.
On two occasions misfortune has conspired to subvert the Brazilian prodigy’s chances of grabbing the competition by the scruff of the neck in the red and blue colors of Paris Saint-Germain.
So here we are in 2020. Is it third time lucky? Is this Neymar’s moment of truth?
Three games now stand between the ‘Red Pill’ of European enlightenment or the ‘Blue Pill’ of another footnote in the 28-year-old’s lengthening Wikipedia page.
‘Biggest mistake in the history of sports’
Since planting their flag in the cobbled Parisians streets in June 2011, PSG’s Qatari investors have made no secret of their ultimate goal — continental supremacy.
But if Europe is a combination lock, they’ve been interminably searching for the locksmith with the elusive key. Seven times they’ve tried and failed to crack the complex code — each failure more painful and bitter than the last.
“A specific timeline was set and once you get past that timeline each season it goes on it seems like PSG are getting further and further away so there’s a weight of history that’s bearing down,” explains French football expert Jonathan Johnson.
No longer the back-up singer to Messi and Suarez but now the leading performer with a license to thrill and become the best in the world.
For some it was a game-changer; for Kallás it remains “the biggest mistake in the history of sports.”
A love-hate relationship
His bond with supporters in the city of love has undulated its way through the full gamut of Facebook relationship statuses: From ‘Married’ to ‘Separated’ to ‘It’s complicated.’
All with the allure of a former lover in Catalonia lingering in the background.
The love-hate dynamic around the polarizing figure was perhaps best encapsulated in the superstar’s first league appearance of the 2019-20 season.
Kallás paints a picture of jury similarly split down the middle along generational lines in Brazil — the young pretenders who adore “the image, the smile, the tattoos” contrasted with the old guard who are “really concerned about him.”
The Cold War in Paris has since thawed, along with the realization that going back to the future is — for now — not an imminent prospect.
“He has shown on the pitch and off it that he’s committed to the project […] He really has to embrace the challenge of being a PSG player and achieving something, notably in the Champions League, in Paris,” says Johnson.
Whilst a new leaf may have been turned on the pitch, questions remain off it.
Will the boy become a man?
Neymar’s personal life has — at times — borne the hallmarks of a gripping telenovela — filled with intrigue, and all supported by an ensembled entourage.
Those willing him on to succeed despair: Will the boy ever become a man?
“In Brazil we have an expression that says that he (Neymar) is an endless promise […] That he is “Menino Neymar” (“Baby Neymar”) — He’s not a boy […] He needs to be in reality […] He has to grow up,” says Kallás, who has followed the Brazilian’s trials and tribulations on and off the pitch.
“When he’s on the pitch he delivers […] I have never, never heard one complaint from a coach or another player about his attitude in training, in the locker-room.”
And for all the goals, assists and silverware to date, history and biology have dealt the twinkle-toed star a cruel hand — starving him of the opportunity to have his say at the business end of European football’s elite club competition.
“That’s what makes the remainder of this campaign so important and why he’ll be under such close scrutiny,” says Johnson.
“It’s make or break”
The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly — and perhaps favorably for PSG — changed the dynamic for the finale of this year’s tournament.
Gone are the two-legged knockout affairs from the quarterfinal stages onwards, replaced instead by single-leg shoot outs — all within the bubble of Lisbon.
Whilst progress in the competition would — according to Johnson — “really give the (Qatari) project the shot in the arm that it’s needed after a few years of massive disappointment,” for Kallás, this month could be the beginning of a career defining two years for the individual at the heart of the narrative.
“We always say ‘This is going to be the year. No — This is going to be the year. No — This is going to be the year’ […] He’s 28-years-old, he should be in the peak of his career but he’s not […] It’s his last chance.”
The telenovela has had its unforeseen plot twists, its moments of madness and its bursts of brilliance. Now it’s in the hands of its lead protagonist to script its showpiece ending.