Richard Buxton: Neymar goes from heir apparent to enfant terrible
Neymar's time at PSG shows the grass is not always greener on the other side
Neymar genuinely believed that the world would be his oyster at Paris Saint-Germain.
Becoming the world's most expensive footballer in 2017 was deemed an automatic guarantee of winning the Champions League single-handedly, ending Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo's stranglehold on the Ballon d'Or - while still being free to do as he pleased.
Success was also supposed to come as a default on the international stage for Brazil's talisman.
Two years on, however, the reality could not be any further from the expectations.
Escaping Messi’s shadow at Barcelona has brought its own problems for Neymar.
No longer is he the same prodigious talent that convinced PSG to splash out 222 million euros (S$341.4m) two years ago.
Not surprisingly, PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi opened the door for his exit, telling France Football magazine on Monday that he wants “players willing to give everything to defend the honour of the jersey and to join the club project”, adding that “nobody forced him to sign here”.
How different things were in 2017.
Neymar was supposed to represent a new frontier for Les Parisiens; one where they ceased being a millionaire’s playground and finally elevated themselves to one of European football’s eminent clubs.
Instead, he has become a cautionary tale of excess and believing your own hype.
He was supposed to help PSG improve their performances in the Champions League, where their best showing was a semi-final appearance in 1994/95.
Yet his arrival did not alter their fate. PSG have been knocked out in the Round of 16 for the last three seasons.
Even the perennial Ligue 1 champions have grown tired of the Neymar circus.
His petulance and remarkable ability to become sidelined whenever his sister’s birthday rolls around are finally beginning to wear thin at a club who have become synonymous with glitz and glamour.
He was dubbed a “rebellious teenager” by the Brazilian press after hitting a Rennes supporter after PSG’s defeat in last month’s Coupe de France final and a foul-mouthed outburst on social media, after the Champions League defeat by Manchester United, have turned the 27-year-old into a liability.
Kylian Mbappe's stratospheric rise over the previous 12 months means PSG have increasingly few reasons to persevere.
Real Madrid, once long-standing suitors, are also no longer rubbernecking in his direction, following the signing of Eden Hazard earlier this month.
Brazil, too, have outgrown their former talisman; stripping him of the captaincy ahead of the Copa America.
His withdrawal through injury was preceded by another bout of tantrum as he lashed out at teenage teammate Weverton for daring to nutmeg him in a training session.
Neymar’s absence in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals in his homeland was hailed as a death knell. Yet, the Selecao seem to be coping well without him during the ongoing Copa America.
Messi’s shadow and indeed life in general at the Nou Camp were supposedly holding Neymar back.
Hindsight proves that they were actually saving him from himself.
Facilitating the prodigal son’s return is said to be feasible but still highly improbable this summer.
Had Neymar come to terms with playing second fiddle to the Argentina captain’s sceptre, Barcelona may have avoided successive capitulations in the Champions League’s latter stages. Yet, that is still more tangible progress than PSG’s stagnation in the Round of 16.
Few other clubs appear willing to gamble on the former prodigy turned enfant terrible.
Manchester United have been the latest side to be linked, with their desperation to sign a marquee name, once Paul Pogba leaves as expected.
Previously considered the heir apparent to both Messi and Ronaldo, the only commonality Neymar continues to enjoy is sharing a birthday with the latter.
Mbappe has already overtaken him in the Ballon d’Or’s reckoning and might not be the last starlet to do so.
A popular mantra which adorns the training grounds at a handful of English Premier League clubs sums up his current predicament: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
He enjoys all of the trappings of an elite-level footballer but lacks the application.
Neymar could have been a real contender for the Ballon d’Or. He could have been someone, rather than a highly paid bum.
Instead, he finds himself out of favour and rapidly running out of options.
Sometimes, the grass really isn’t always greener on the other side.