Neymar has become the latest high-profile name to make the switch to the Saudi Pro League, with the 31-year-old agreeing a €90 million move to Al Hilal. As the Brazilian enters the twilight of his career, it’s only fair to look back and wonder if he reached his full potential.
As a winner of multiple league titles and a Champions League, as well as being the national team’s joint highest scorer, it certainly cannot be considered a failure. However, it is hard not to wonder whether Neymar could – and potentially should – have achieved even more.
It’s rare in football for a player to be considered one of the best of their generation, and even one of the all-time greats, yet also leave a lingering feeling of ‘what could have been’. Yet over the past couple of decades, this has started to become a recurring theme for some of Brazilian football’s best.
The rise of Ronaldo Nazario in the mid-nineties was truly meteoric. He steamrolled his way through the Eredivisie, La Liga and Serie A, breaking the world record transfer twice in the process. He also picked up the European Golden Shoe, two Fifa World Player of the Year awards and a Ballon d’Or. All by the age of 21. There was seemingly no limit to what he could achieve, and what he could do with a ball at his feet.
After two blistering seasons with Inter Milan, disaster struck; in November 1999 Ronaldo ruptured a tendon in his right knee, sidelining him for five months. But the misery was only compounded, as just six minutes into his return against Lazio in April, he suffered a full rupture of the tendons in his knee, described by his physiotherapist as the “worst football injury” he had ever seen.
Ronaldo recovered in time to guide Brazil to their fifth World Cup triumph in 2002, earning himself a move to Real Madrid and his second Ballon d’Or. However despite being able to recapture some of his old form, his struggles with injury and fitness continued to plague him until retirement in 2011.
These recurring injury issues, particularly at such a young age, mean it is hard to look back at Ronaldo’s career without wondering what more he could have achieved. He remains arguably the greatest player to have never won the Champions League. Prior to that devastating knee injury, sustained aged just 23, he had already scored 194 goals in 228 appearances at club level.
Had he stayed fit, he would likely have smashed through record after record. We will never know how high his ceiling truly was, but we were at least blessed to have witnessed the greatness of O Fenomeno.
For many football fans of a certain generation, Ronaldinho was one of those players who made you fall in love with the game. A truly joyous footballer and one of the most skilful of all time, he played the game the way every kid on the street wishes they could. It was PSG who gave Ronaldinho his big break in Europe and despite impressing on the field, he often found himself at odds with manager Luis Fernandez, having seemingly grown fond of the extravagant lifestyle that often comes with being a professional footballer.
After linking up with Ronaldo to help Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002, Barcelona came calling for Ronaldinho the following summer. He hit the ground running in Catalonia, with his explosive pace, dazzling quick feet and flair for showmanship injecting new life into the side. He helped La Blaugrana to back-to-back league titles in 2005 and 2006, with the latter part of a historic double as the club won their first European Cup since 1992. Ronaldinho himself would sweep up individual awards for his efforts, including the Ballon d’Or.
— LALIGA English (@LaLigaEN) May 30, 2020
Under Frank Rijkaard’s guidance, Ronaldinho had dedicated himself to training and his own personal fitness, reaching the zenith of European football as a result. He continued to weave his magic on the pitch for Barcelona, however his old habits and vices never left him. Injuries hampered his fifth season at Barcelona and his lifestyle of late night partying ultimately caught up to him, leaving many to believe he was already on the decline.
Whilst he was still capable of producing moments of brilliance with the ball at his feet, declining fitness and a perceived lack of dedication hindered the latter stages of his career. Ronaldinho will go down as one of the greats of the modern era, but just as with Ronaldo before him, there is that lingering sense that he had even more to offer.
Over the course of six seasons with AC Milan and in a team littered with legends of the modern game, Kaka became the jewel in the Rossoneri’s crown. He reached his pinnacle in 2007, as he guided Milan to their seventh Champions League and raked in a host of individual awards, including the Ballon d’Or.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 14, 2020
Kaka signed for Real Madrid for a world record fee in the summer of 2009, a summer which ushered in the club’s second Galactico era and a transfer reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane’s move from Serie A in 2001. But the similarities with Zidane’s career at the Bernabeu would begin and end there.
Kaka struggled to adapt in his first season and in August 2010 it was revealed he had undergone surgery on a longstanding knee injury, which would keep him sidelined for most of the following campaign.
There was another obstacle for Kaka in his route back to the first team in the shape of a young Mesut Ozil, signed by Madrid after a breakout summer at the 2010 World Cup. The German took the opportunity presented by Kaka’s injury and ended his debut season with an incredible 25 assists, the most of any player in the major European leagues. From then on, Kaka struggled to recapture the form which had previously lit up European football.
After six seasons performing at the highest level, a move to Madrid at the age of 27 seemed to come at the perfect time. However, his years in Spain were ultimately unsuccessful on a personal level, as Kaka never truly established himself in the side. Whilst the knee injury which scuppered his second season was the overriding factor, the immense pressure and competition for places that comes with wearing the famous white shirt certainly didn’t help. Whilst we never got to witness him at his imperious best for Real Madrid, his time at AC Milan will live long in the memory.
Neymar was one of the first players to benefit from the rise of social media, with his highlight reel making him a household name whilst still just a teenager at Santos. Already possessing all the hallmarks that would define his game, and indeed those that defined his predecessors, he quickly became the golden boy of Brazilian football. Once again, it was Barcelona who landed his signature in 2013.
After a season of adaptation, Neymar found his feet as part of the famous ‘MSN’ front three with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, arguably one of the greatest ever assembled. The trio scored 122 of Barca’s 172 goals in all competitions during the 2014/15 season, with Neymar scoring 39 times to help the Catalans to a fifth Champions League triumph.
From then on, Neymar went from strength to strength, becoming one of the best players in the world and widely tipped as the successor to the Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo throne. However, speculation surrounded his future during the 2016/17 season and he became increasingly linked with a move away from the Camp Nou. It was suggested that he had become frustrated with his role in the side, having to make sacrifices for the good of the team, and perhaps more so than his two strike partners.
Following a long and drawn out saga, including the now infamous “Se queda” post from team-mate Gerard Pique, Paris Saint-Germain triggered Neymar’s release clause and made the Brazilian the most expensive footballer in history, his €222m fee more than double the previous world record.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) August 3, 2022
It was a transfer which shook the footballing world and raised plenty of eyebrows – and not just for the astronomical sum. There were many who questioned why, at the age of 25 and with his best years still ahead of him, Neymar would move to a perceived ‘lesser’ league, where PSG were expected to comfortably win the title year after year.
Former Barcelona teammate Jeremie Mathieu claimed that the reason for Neymar’s departure was to escape Messi’s shadow and increase his chances of winning a Ballon d’Or. However things wouldn’t exactly go to plan, as despite being a standout performer whenever he took to the field, recurring ankle injuries marred his time in France. In six seasons in Ligue 1, he never made more than 22 league appearances in a single campaign.
To top it all off, Neymar was arguably in the shadow of Kylian Mbappe for much of his PSG career, who himself is now amongst the elite of world football.
Whilst there is no one answer for why these icons of the game all faltered later in their careers, struggles with fitness and injuries are certainly the underlying theme and are often just pure misfortune.
So can anybody break the trend?
In Vinicius Jr, it seems as though Brazil have already found their next superstar. Blessed with some of the incredible talent shared by his predecessors, Vini has established himself as one of the most feared wingers in Europe.
The Madridistas will be hoping that Vinicius can break the trend of his compatriots and maintain his high standards for years to come, and there is no reason why he can’t. For over a decade, football fans were spoiled as Messi and Ronaldo dominated world football and set new benchmarks, not only with the level of their ability, but also their longevity.
Standards and attitudes in football are always changing, with modern footballers fitter than ever before. Real Madrid in particular have seen the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema and Modric lead them to multiple titles in their supposed twilight years, with all three winning a Ballon d’Or in their thirties.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 18, 2023
This undoubtedly has an impact on the younger generation and Vinicius has had a front row seat to their success. He now looks set to inherit the mantle and challenge of leading both club and country to glory.
As for Neymar, we will never know how his career may have panned out in different circumstances, whether he would have truly established himself as the world’s best and won a coveted Ballon d’Or.
Just as with those who came before him, despite his unquestionable talent we can only wonder what might have been. Perhaps the biggest and most lasting impact of his record-breaking transfer to PSG was actually on the market itself.