At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Neymar da Silva Junior was already the biggest superstar in his home country and the best player on the Brazilian national team. But just 22 years old at the time, he wasn’t fully developed athletically. He took a knee to the back during a 2-1 victory over Colombia, and found himself lying prone on the field. Unable to move his legs, he had to be airlifted out of the stadium.
Neymar watched from home, sobbing, as Brazil went on to get embarrassed 7-1 by Germany. His career could have ended that day. Instead, in 2017, he cost one team a quarter of a billion dollars, and became the man crazy enough to voluntarily leave the side of Lonel Messi in order to directly challenge his idol and former teammate.
“Imagine that everyone said that Neymar has to be Messi’s substitute,” Neymar’s father told COPE back in August. “He does not want to be his substitute. You have to leave Messi. He is the idol at Barcelona.”
“Neymar has to make his own way and accept the challenge he has,” the elder Neymar added.
Twenty-five solar rotations into his life on earth, Neymar’s challenge is as clear as a reflection on the Ballon d’Or. The Brazilian is finally ready to become the best player on the planet, and the exorbitantly expensive move away from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain provides him the chance to finally end the Messi and Ronaldo era.
If 2017’s transfer fee announced Neymar to the masses and made him a famous figure beyond the sporting world, 2018 is set up as the year that the Brazilian finally bookmarks an era where the sport has globalized and expanded in a way even the optimists of 20 years ago could not have imagined.
With the 2018 World Cup in Russia fast approaching in the summer months and PSG looking ready to compete in Europe, 2018 is set up to be the year of Neymar.
To warm up for his big year, Neymar adjusted to life in Paris in next to no time. Since arriving at PSG, he scored 11 goals and passed off nine assists in only 14 Ligue 1 matches. PSG is nine points clear and only a natural disaster would keep France’s most famous capital club from reclaiming the league title from Monaco. With Neymar, PSG will continue piling domestic silverware and likely need to invest in a bigger trophy cabinet.
The one missing for PSG, of course, is the Champions League trophy—and they have it in their sights.
Neymar scored six times and directly created another three goals in six group stage matches, pushing PSG to the top of its group, over Bayern Munich. The result? A date with defending champion Real Madrid in the Round of 16. Not ideal. But Neymar’s journey to the top of the sport always required battling bosses, like the end of a video game level, and his time has come to take on Ronaldo. Soon enough, his path will cross with Messi as well.
Far beyond the Champions League, the 2018 World Cup in Russia will provide Neymar the ultimate test—and the ultimate platform. At the moment, Neymar is only five goals behind Romario, 12 goals behind (the original) Ronaldo and 27 goals behind Pele on the list of Brazil’s all-time goal scorers. Considering his age, Neymar will probably end his career above Pele. But if he wants to be in the conversation about Brazil’s greatest football players—let alone mentioned in the same breath as Pele—he must win the world cup.
If Neymar wins the World Cup with Brazil, he will not only find closure after the 2014 injury, he will undoubtedly win the Ballon d’Or and become the first man not named Messi or Ronaldo to do so since Kaka won it in 2007.
A changing of the guard is due. Messi and Ronaldo have both pushed past 30 and no longer play with the same level of activity as they did half a decade earlier. While Messi’s magical moments still mesmerize and Ronaldo’s goal scoring boots still test net makers, Neymar is the most exciting player in the sport. When the 2018 World Cup arrives and Brazil takes the field, that fact will become undeniable.
The Messi and Ronaldo era in world football was Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, minus the injuries. It was Ali versus Frazier, It was Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird. The two greatest players of a generation were made even greater by the competition between them. But nothing lasts forever.
And only one man seems worthy of carrying the torch from Messi and Ronaldo.
In 2018, Neymar is finally ready to step-over and dribble past two of the greatest players to kick a football.