Neymar did an amazing thing yesterday in a game you almost certainly didn’t watch and probably didn’t even hear about. At one point in yesterday’s Ligue 1 match against Dijon, Paris Saint-Germain’s brightest star picked up the ball near the center line and sped his way down half the pitch, in the process breezing past five opponents before sizing up a shot and cracking the ball between the legs of a sixth Dijon player and past the keeper. It was a wonderful move that called to mind Diego Maradona’s famous Goal of the Century and Lionel Messi’s eerily similar jaunt, only this one has thus far received much, much less fanfare:
That goal was his third goal on a day in which he’d wind up scoring four and picking up two more assists in an 8-0 PSG victory. On paper, his hat trick goal and his brilliant play all match long would be testaments to his undeniable greatness as a player, as would his staggering 15 goals and 11 assists in just 15 league appearances. And in a way, they are that. Neymar is easily the second best player in the world right now, and watching him play on any given weekend is enough to confirm that.
However, the closer I look at that slaloming solo goal, the more I notice how chintzy it feels. With under 20 minutes left, down 5-0 already, the Dijon players look like they’d rather run into the dressing room and go home than run down yet another PSG attack. The attempted tackles appear half-hearted at best, the pursuits quickly abandoned seemingly with the knowledge that losing 5-0 or 8-0 changes nothing for them. That goal and at least half the others PSG put past Dijon in the match were the result of exquisite technique and vision, yes, but also of atrocious individual and collective defending, the away team leaving oceans of empty space all over the place for a Parisien player to saunter into and score from. Neymar and Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé are clearly great players, but does it mean all that much when their incredible talents are so often set against wildly overmatched and disinterested opponents? If a historically great player lands in a league barely anyone watches and even fewer respect, do his feats of genius make a sound?
Nothing about Ligue 1’s lack of anything close to world-class quality impugns Neymar’s prodigious gifts as a player, nor is his decision to play in an inferior league a pock upon his character or morals or ambition. As displayed against scrubs or not, Neymar’s abilities are undeniable, and if he felt the need to leave Barcelona to strike out on his own path, along the way picking up mountains of money while doing so, then that is his right and more power to him. Still, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that the man who, barring unforeseen events, will soon assume the mantle of the best player in the world, who in the coming years will score an absurd number of jaw-dropping goals and set up countless assists with awe-inspiring passes and embark on iconic dribbling runs that will