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Neymar's last chance to win the World Cup - and restore his reputation

3:00 PM WAT 23/11/2022
Neymar Brazil Last Dance
The Brazilian's World Cup story to date has been a sorry tale of pain and play-acting, but there could yet be a happy ending in Qatar

Neymar lies prone on the pitch at the Estadio Castalao in Fortaleza. The Brazil attacker wails in excruciating pain after being levelled by a vicious knee in the back from Colombia's Juan Camilo Zuniga. The hosts lead 2-1 in a bruising World Cup quarter-final. But there are still four minutes to go. Neymar wants to get up. He wants to play on.

Marcelo pleads, "No, no, don't move; wait for the doctors!" Neymar nonetheless tries to rise, but is unable to move. "I can't feel my legs," he cries.

Marcelo, terrified, screams for immediate assistance. Amid the touchline chaos and confusion, the medics struggle to get on the field. Marcelo becomes frantic.

As the panic spreads, Neymar is eventually stretchered from the field and rushed to the medical department within the stadium for immediate assessment.

Neymar is in agony. The medics suspect a serious back injury. The forward is transferred to the Hospital Sao Carlos in Fortaleza, where a crowd of well-wishers have already gathered outside, desperate to learn the condition of a national icon.

Brazil manage to see out the game against Colombia, but there is an obvious fear that they will have to make do without their talisman for the semi-final showdown with Germany.

Rumours begin to swirl online: ‘He's okay; he could return for the final’; ‘No, his tournament is over; worse, he could end up in a wheelchair!’

Meanwhile, Neymar eagerly awaits the news of the numerous tests he has been forced to undergo. The doctors arrive. One of them tells him, "There is good news and bad news – which would you rather first?"

Neymar chooses the bad news. "Your World Cup is over."

"And the good news?!” he asks, struggling to believe that there could be any.

"You'll walk again. You've suffered a fractured vertebra but two centimetres to the right, and you would have been paralysed. Your career would have been over."

Neymar feels blessed but that doesn't stem the tears. He and his loved ones spend the next few days crying, distraught that his dream of leading Brazil to World Cup glory has been ended by injury.

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Remarkably, the physical and emotional agony Neymar endured on July 4, 2014 doesn't rank as his worst night on a football field.

That title is reserved for Brazil's World Cup quarter-final loss to Belgium four years later. For Neymar, the disappointment ran even deeper.

He felt Brazil had a better side than in 2014. They also weren’t burdened with the enormous responsibility of winning the World Cup on home soil. He believed that the trophy really was there for the taking.

And yet they wilted once again, unable to contain Romelu Lukaku & Co. in the first true test of their supposedly newfound mental strength.

"I can say it is the saddest moment of my career," he wrote on Instagram after the 2-1 defeat. "The pain is great because we knew we could get there.

"We knew we had a chance to go far, to make history... But it wasn't to be this time."

But what about this time? Will Qatar 2022 prove a case of third time lucky for Neymar? Or is his World Cup story fated to be a sorry tale of pain and play-acting?

His entire legacy is arguably on the line. The World Cup will certainly go a long, long way to determining how he is remembered. Remember, he is unlikely to feature in 2026.

Neymar may be only 30 but he's already admitted that he doesn't feel like he has another four years of international football in him.

He long struggled with the stress and strain that comes with skippering the Selecao, telling DAZN just last year: "I see it as my last [World Cup] because I don't know if I have the strength of mind to deal with football anymore."

And though he has since given up the armband, that is hardly surprising, of course: a man that so often makes the game look ridiculously easy has found it difficult to avoid trouble, on and off the field. There have been constant court cases and political controversies.

His fans, of which there are still many, believe that he has long been targeted by rivals jealous of his talent and lavish lifestyle; his critics, however, would argue that he has brought it all on himself with his petulance and perceived sense of entitlement.

This is the endlessly divisive world in which Neymar has resided for the past decade. No wonder it has worn him out.

It's worth remembering that there was almost universal sympathy for him when his World Cup was ended by Zuniga in 2014; the neutrals couldn't help but mourn the loss of one of the tournament's leading lights.

However, they were glad to see the back of him four years later, when Brazil were surprisingly beaten by Belgium in the quarter-finals.

Neymar took the art of simulation to a whole new level at Russia 2018. He spent an obscene amount of time rolling around on the pitch in apparent agony – 14 minutes to be precise.

He had, of course, suffered some legitimate fouls, but even those were often followed by embarrassing histrionics.

Former England striker Alan Shearer labelled his behaviour "pathetic", while Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio felt that it was "a shame for all football" that such a talented footballer should attempt to deceive officials in such an undignified manner.

"It's a negative example for the game," he sighed. "It's a charade."

Neymar tried to both defend, and explain, himself a few weeks later. "Studs on my calf, knee in my back, stamp on my foot," he said. "You might think I exaggerate and sometimes I really do exaggerate. But the fact is that I suffer on the field.

"There's still a child inside me. Sometimes he enchants the world and sometimes he irritates the world. When I seem rude, it's not because I am a spoiled child, it's because I haven't learned to deal with frustration. It's taken me time to accept your criticism, it’s taken me time to look into the mirror and transform myself into a new man."

Those words would have carried far more weight, though, had they not been uttered in an advertisement for Gillette.

Once again, Neymar had irritated the world with more acting.

Still, there is no doubting his desire to redeem himself in Qatar. Winning the World Cup is his childhood dream, just as it is for so many of his compatriots.

The big difference is, of course, is that it's always been a realistic target for Neymar, who was hailed as Pele's heir the moment he broke into the Santos team as a teenager. It's not been easy, then, living in the shadow of 'The King'. Heavy lies the crown and all that.

And yet, in spite of all of the pressure to live up to a three-time World Cup winner, Neymar has regularly delivered for Brazil. Indeed, there is every chance that he will usurp Pele as his nation's all-time leading goalscorer during the World Cup. Neymar needs just two goals to equal the record, and three to break it.

He's likely to get plenty of chances, at least. Brazil arrive in Qatar as the favourites and with such a vast array of attacking talent that coach Tite was even able to leave Roberto Firmino at home.

Of course, the Selecao were heavily fancied to prevail in Russia, but it was clear that the scars of 2014 still hadn't healed. One wonders if they're truly over that infamous 7-1 loss to Germany now.

Plenty has changed in the intervening eight years, but there remains a worrying mental fragility about Brazil, which was evident again in the 2021 Copa America loss on home soil to Argentina, and is arguably personified by their best player.

The talent is there to triumph in Qatar, but the temperament...

Encouragingly for Brazil, Neymar is fit, firing and in a better frame of mind than he has been in a long time, enjoying arguably his best run of form in France.

As revealed by GOAL, Paris Saint-Germain were willing to let him during the summer, but Neymar refused to leave, unwilling to uproot just months before the World Cup.

The tournament's importance is clear to him. He knows what's at stake, both for him and his country.

This is his last chance to win the World Cup. And, perhaps more importantly, restore his reputation.