Neymar had it all at Barcelona, save one thing—the spotlight to himself. Camp Nou is one of soccer’s most iconic stages, a platform for the sport’s greatest, a club that Neymar undoubtedly was a part of. But the fact the Brazilian had to share it clearly grated on some level, even if the players he was sharing it with were some of his best friends and the world's greatest.
At the Parc des Princes, Neymar believed he would stand a better chance of becoming a superstar in his own right. He became the face of ‘Project PSG’ upon making the move to the French capital for a world record €222 million fee in the summer of 2017, embodying the ambition of a club with its sight set on European domination.
In hindsight, Neymar’s decision to leave Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain looks to have been a massive miscalculation. The Brazilian has had to share the spotlight at the Parc des Princes just as he did at Camp Nou, and at times has even been in the shadow of Kylian Mbappe, his fresher, more consistent and often more exciting teammate. If there’s a future Ballon d’Or winner at PSG right now, it’s probably not Neymar.
Questions have been asked of the 28-year-old’s attitude and mindset, with many doubting Neymar still wants to be in Paris. This led to incessant speculation last summer that the Brazilian could return to Barcelona, with Neymar barely hiding his desire to be reunited with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in Catalonia.
While Neymar once looked like soccer’s next best player in waiting, there is a sense that he has wasted the past few years of his career. Now 28, the Brazilian should be at the peak of his powers, ready to take over from Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the global face of the sport. Instead, he's often spoken about in terms of what he should be rather than what he is.
The next two weeks, however, could see Neymar reverse the damage his reputation has suffered since leaving Barcelona. If the Brazilian wanted the spotlight to himself, this is his chance to claim it, with the eyes of the soccer world on Portugal for the Champions League mini-tournament which will end with a new European champion being crowned.
Neymar has already won the Champions League, with Barcelona back in 2016, but a second continental triumph with PSG would force critics to re-evaluate their opinion on the Brazilian’s move to the French capital three years ago, particularly with his former club in such turmoil on and off the pitch.
This season might be PSG’s best chance yet to go all the way in the Champions League. Atalanta will present a tricky test in the quarter finals, but the Italians are still the lowest calibre side left in the competition. Looking further ahead, Bayern Munich and Manchester City might have the edge on PSG as favourites, but the French champions aren’t far behind them.
PSG have yet to make it as far as the semi-finals of the Champions League, with the club developing something of a mental barrier when it comes to the latter stages of the competition. The collapses to Barcelona and Manchester United inflicted psychological damage on PSG. The unique circumstances of this season’s Champions League latter rounds could, however, see PSG overcome this. They won’t have to play any second legs in Portugal.
“I have the impression there's always a lot of pressure on Neymar,” PSG boss Tuchel explained ahead of the Champions League quarter final clash with Atalanta, focusing on the responsibility the Brazilian will be asked to shoulder.
“You can't imagine the pressure that's on Ney. But he is a lad who likes that, who's used to playing with that pressure. He likes the big matches and he likes decisive matches. He's a player you can trust in the big matches. I'm absolutely convinced he will put on a big performance and that he holds the keys for us, he has the mentality for situations like this.”
For PSG, though, that mentality from Neymar hasn’t always been so obvious. Now is the time for him to prove he is the leader the Qatari-owned club paid €222 million for him to be. Now is the time for him to prove wrong all that has been said and written about him over the last few years. Now is the time for him to claim his position at the top of the game.