Hail the new Neymar: Neil Humphreys
Unselfish, matured displays make him a genuine superstar
Neymar's biggest problem has always been his greatest asset. He polarises.
Almost every aspect of his career has divided opinion.
When he left Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain for 222 million euros (S$361.4m) in 2017, he was a shallow, vacuous superstar, more interested in money than legacy.
Or he was a far-sighted, ambitious footballer eager to leave Lionel Messi's kingdom and establish his own.
When he dives in a Brazil jersey at World Cups, he shames a proud nation. He amplifies the idea that he's got a soft centre, having been hand-reared in Santos' academy, rather than the tough favelas.
Or he's the creative fulcrum of the Selecao and the most obvious target.
When he picks up an injury, he's weak. Or he's the victim of clumsy tackles from inferior Ligue 1 defenders.
When he hankers for a return to Barcelona, he's selfish and disloyal to employers who made him one of the wealthiest athletes on the planet. Or he's a gifted artist that feels increasingly disillusioned by a club failing to keep its promise.
Even when he prepares for the knockout stages of this season's Champions League, he trims his mohawk and dons the tinted sunglasses for social media, as if heading for a Tinder date rather than the biggest match in PSG's history.
Or he's projecting an image of a calm talisman ahead of a make-or-break contest.
Neymar was and remains the most divisive footballer of his generation, for both club and country. He entertains. He infuriates. He can be right and wrong in a single match, comment or social media post.
But yesterday morning (Singapore time) felt different. He left no room for misinterpretation. His exemplary performance in PSG's 3-0 Champions League semi-final win over RB Leipzig was too focused and clear-headed to divide an audience.
He kept it simple. He played for the team.
There was no subtext or coded, "come and get me" messages to other clubs. Neymar gave everything he had for the collective cause.
Alongside the equally committed and selfless Kylian Mbappe and Angel di Maria, Neymar delivered a timely reminder to us - and more importantly, to himself - that he is an integral part of one of the game's most devastating attacking trios.
He won the free-kick that led to Marquinhos' opener, hit the post twice, terrified Leipzig's young fullbacks and still found time to make us all believe in magic.
His back flick for di Maria, which set up PSG's second goal, was a sleight of heel so deliciously quick and inventive, it needed several viewings to fully appreciate the sorcery on show.
This is the new, 28-year-old Neymar. His age has perhaps forced the Brazilian to take stock of his career. He's closer to the end than the beginning. His history needs to be written now.
The circus that was once Barcelona certainly helps to clarify his thinking. The Catalan side's fall from grace and their Parisian rival's upcoming appearance in their first Champions League final feels like a delayed vindication.
Barcelona's decision to build around only Messi was indoctrinated for so long that Neymar felt he had no choice but to leave.
Their decline has seemingly triggered a kind of internal epiphany. Neymar has finally accepted that he's never going back. His legacy lies in Paris. His future is now, in this season's Champions League.
Before the lockdown, he scored in both legs against Borussia Dortmund. He didn't score against either Atalanta last week or Leipzig, but was outstanding in both contests.
Those quirky, goalless statistics are fitting. Personal glory is less important than the club's obsessive quest for European dominance.
The final represents a crossroads for PSG and Neymar, offering a chance to confirm that the long and expensive journey was worth it for both parties.
SENSE OF MISSION
Certainly, the sense of mission is obvious with Neymar. His dominance was close to absolute in both the quarter- and semi-finals.
To the casual observer, he squandered too many gilt-edged opportunities. But he provoked so many fouls, disrupting defensive rhythms while bringing Mbappe and di Maria into play. He played like an elder statesman, intelligently and selflessly.
Ironically, the restless boy that was so eager to escape Messi's shadow is now the settled man happy to be a member of PSG's attacking triumvirate.
Ahead of the final, Neymar looks engaged and fully-integrated. The grass is no longer greener elsewhere. For now at least, his heart belongs to Paris.
He'll never please everyone, of course. His tireless display against Atalanta still led to murmurings of "wasted chances" and "fluffed lines".
But if he wins the Champions League for PSG, he will polarise no more.