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The Case for Neymar as an All-Time Great

There have been 14 Ballon D’ors handed out since Cristiano Ronaldo, widely considered the 2nd best player of all time, won his first in 2008. Luka Modrić took home one, Karim Benzema another, and the rest went to Ronaldo and the other player of the pair widely seen as football’s main GOAT candidates nowadays: Lionel Messi. There are a few players many thought might have snagged one in that timeframe: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, and of course, Neymar (and to be fair to Lewandowski, he would have won if 2020’s award was not canceled). Once regarded as the successor to Messi and Ronaldo, Neymar was never quite able to catch up to the pair, instead sitting in a tier just behind those two players considered the best of their generation. Finally, though, Neymar looked in line to win the Ballon D’or after a sizzling start to this season with PSG, especially if he could bring favored Brazil the World Cup. However, after Argentina’s victory at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, helped in no small part by Neymar’s injury, it’s a certainty that Messi wins #8 or Erling Haaland, fresh off a treble and a high-scoring debut season with Man City, takes it home.

I’m going to change something up with this piece. Typically, I utilize more of a formal writing style. However, in this instance, I will be adopting a more conversational style, complete with use of the first person. I feel this will be more effective for the claims I’m planning on making and better for getting the point across.

I’m not just going to claim in this article that Neymar is the #3 player of his generation, behind only Messi and Ronaldo. That’s too easy - and at this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many who disagree (although some might argue for Luka Modrić or Luis Suárez). Instead, I’m going to make a different case: Neymar is a top 5 player of all time, and at minimum top 10. And no, I’m not joking. 

It might seem crazy. Neymar’s 31 years old. He’s still one of the very best in the world (although we haven’t seen him in official action since mid-February), possibly the best, though he doesn’t have the longevity that Messi or Ronaldo have displayed on his resume - yet. But when you look at the resume, it’s getting harder and harder to argue against its quality.

First, the numbers. Neymar’s played in 708 matches, and he’s scored 436 goals and dished out 246 assists, for an impressive 682 G+A. For reference, according to the Messi vs. Ronaldo site, Messi at 31 had played 763 matches, scored 616 goals, and assisted 251 more for a whopping 867 G+A (yeah, he’s the GOAT, we get it). Ronaldo, meanwhile, had played 774 matches, scored 521, and assisted 174, a remarkable 695 G+A total.

Now, it needs to be noted here that Neymar’s tally was boosted somewhat by playing in a weaker league in Brazil for a few years and running up solid tallies in the São Paulo state league. With that said, though, Neymar’s non-penalty G+A/90 was almost identical at Santos and Barcelona, and actually ticked up significantly after arriving at PSG and becoming the main man - so a stat-padding narrative isn’t particularly accurate. He’s simply accrued G+A at a very high rate his whole career - a rate, in fact, superior to Cristiano Ronaldo’s stats by the same age, before you even consider Neymar wasn’t the primary penalty taker at Barcelona.

What makes Neymar so special, though, is everything else he does on the pitch. I don’t have to describe what he does with the ball to those who have seen it, nor am I really able to, beyond the fact that it’s magic. In terms of pure dribbling ability, he’s as good as anyone. He doesn’t match Messi’s raw dribbling output on a seasonal basis, but Neymar’s best matches on the ball are just as impressive, if not more so (his wondrous Champions League performances against Juventus or Atalanta, for example). I might get called blasphemous for that, but it’s true. He’s an absolute wonder on the ball. 

Creatively, he’s again perhaps the best in the world. Usually, when you look at creativity and ball progression numbers, one name stands out: Lionel Messi. I don’t want to wax poetic about him in Neymar’s article, but Messi dominates Europe’s top leagues in key passes, goal and shot creation, progressive passes, passes into the final third, through balls, players dribbled past, and so on and so forth. For example, in 2020/21, Messi was top 10 in almost every single available offensive statistical category on FootballReference, and ranked first in most of them. There’s only 1 player who has ever been able to match, or nearly match, Messi playing at his best in all of these statistics during his career: Neymar. Other players such as Mesut Özil, Ángel Di María, Kevin De Bruyne, and Thomas Müller have been able to match a few of these numbers, but no one besides Neymar has been able to do it in all of them.

If that seems like a claim needing evidence, look no further than the Big 5 Leagues Combined numbers category. Messi is everywhere, of course, but look at the rate stats. The Goal-Creating Actions per 90, the Shot-Creating Actions per 90, the xA per 90. Everywhere you look, Neymar ran circles around the non-Messi field - and this is 31-year-old Neymar after a litany of serious injuries! One could even argue that peak Neymar, despite having fewer G+A, is just as impactful as peak Cristiano Ronaldo. He doesn’t have the longevity, but that’s an argument that could be made. I can’t overstate just how good Neymar was and is.

Messi was the story of the 2021 Copa América, winning the Golden Boot and Golden Ball as Argentina won the tournament, and finishing as the top assist-giver as well. However, in those creation statistics I mentioned, there was one player who actually outpaced Messi in the 2021 Copa América: Neymar. Neymar’s underlying numbers for the tournament and per-90 stats were actually better than Messi’s were - and that was Messi at more or less his best (until the ankle injury against Colombia during the semifinal), receiving plaudits for his overall play. Yes, this was 29 year old Neymar and 34 year old Messi, but the fact remains that no one on the planet besides Neymar was able to sniff even 34-year-old Messi’s overall contributions to a team. Neymar, meanwhile, outpaced him. Argentina’s win meant no Golden Ball for Neymar. And it meant Neymar would continue to lack the respect he truly deserves.

Neymar’s sheer brilliance for Brazil has been hard for the average fan to truly understand. He’s never won a major tournament with his country, but he’s turned up in every meaningful match, more or less - and he won the Olympics and Confederations Cup, winning the Golden Ball at the latter. Neymar wasn’t selected for the 2010 World Cup despite Brazilian fans and players petitioning then-manager Dunga to pick him, but was a key performer in the 2011 Copa América as Brazil went out on penalties against Paraguay. He didn’t do much in their elimination, but scored 2 goals to help get them there in the first place. They lost the 2012 Olympics, but the Olympics are not considered a major competition thanks to the age restrictions. At the 2013 Confederations Cup (which Brazil were in as the 2014 World Cup host), Neymar dazzled, leading fans to hope that this could be Brazil’s World Cup.

In 2014 at the World Cup in his home country, Neymar took Brazil into the semifinals as one of the best players of the tournament, but injured his back in the win over Colombia, although he contributed a key assist first. I don’t have to remind people what happened against Germany without him. Neymar and Brazil then went into the 2015 Copa América with high hopes despite the blowout against Germany. In the first match, Neymar scored and assisted in a 2-1 Brazil win. In the second match, Brazil lost 1-0 to Colombia, and Neymar was booked for a handball before being sent off after kicking a ball at a Colombian player. He was handed a 4-match suspension, and Brazil crashed out in the quarters without their star.

As everyone knows, Neymar ended up playing the 2016 Olympics instead of the Copa América Centenario, and he did lead Brazil to the gold medal there. At the 2018 World Cup, Neymar starred in the group stage, then scored the match winner in the Round of 16 against Mexico (he created the second off of a deflected shot, but didn’t get the assist). Then came the quarterfinal. Belgium jumped out to an early 2-0 lead off of a Fernandinho own goal and a De Bruyne rocket. Brazil finally found a goal in the 76th minute, but trailed 2-1. They needed their star man to deliver. He had given SEVEN key passes already, but that somehow wasn’t enough. They needed a goal.

I still remember the moment like it was yesterday. 3:10’ out of the 5 minutes of stoppage time elapsed. Neymar, moving back to the top of the box and receiving the pass from Douglas Costa, then hitting it first time. The ball bending towards the upper right-hand corner and looking for all the world like Neymar’s moment. The sheer certainty that the ball would end in the back of the net.

Then Thibaut Courtois made an unbelievable save. Brazil were sent home, and Neymar continued his hunt for a major trophy with his nation. Neymar’s next chance to win a major trophy with Brazil was to be the 2019 Copa América, but an injury kept him out - only for Brazil to break through and win it, beating Peru in the final. In the 2021 Copa América, as mentioned above, Neymar was absolutely brilliant, but Brazil lost in the final. And, of course, the 2022 World Cup is fresh on all of our minds.

Neymar rushed back from injury to score the goal. The goal that cemented his place as an all time great. The goal that we would remember him by. From now on, when people talked about Neymar, they’d always talk about how a one-legged Neymar, playing his worst game in months, struggling through injury, scored one of the goals of the tournament to beat a tough Croatia team and lead Brazil into a daunting gauntlet of Argentina and France to win the title.

But then Croatia scored late, and Neymar didn’t get to take a penalty in the ensuing shootout because he was going to go 5th. He’s not the only star who’s had that happen to him - Mo Salah notably didn’t take a penalty at AFCON 2022, Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t take a penalty at Euro 2012 or at the 2017 Confederations Cup - but it did underscore the fact that your top penalty taker should always go first instead of hunting glory by going 5th. That is not my opinion - it is a statistical fact that the first penalty is the most important. I’m not saying that Neymar was hunting glory - it’s commonly thought you want your best taker going 5th - but it cost them. Suddenly, Neymar and Brazil, the tournament favorites, were out. They had a real chance against Messi and Argentina, and they certainly would have been a real test for France. But we’ll never know now. And so Neymar will go into the 2024 Copa América without a single major international trophy to his name, despite his performances.

With all of this in mind, Neymar has now equalled Pelé’s goalscoring record for Brazil and is one of the top assist-givers in the history of international football. He’s scored huge goals and handed out key assists time and again, playing incredible football all the while. Frankly, I don’t think it’s fair to criticize him for his record. It’s not like he’s let his country down when it mattered. He’s scored or assisted in most of the knockout matches he’s played - and he’s one of the rare attackers who can do neither and still play very well. Brazil got demolished without him in 2014. Finishing variance simply has not gone his way when it’s mattered most. Is that his fault? No. I am firmly of the opinion that players should only be ranked on what they can control - their performances. And Neymar, it must be said, is one of the greatest performers of all time.

No, I’m not talking about his penchant for diving (although I must admit that it is rather impressive - he was sent off against Strasbourg for a blatant dive just this season). He’s produced G+A at a Cristiano Ronaldo-esque rate up to this point in his career whilst managing nearly Messi-level ball progression and creation numbers. He’s absolutely glorious to watch, diving aside. At some point, it’s time for us to admit what we are watching: an all-time great. No, he doesn’t have the international trophies, and no, he’s never won a big title as the best player on the team (although he was very good in 2014/2015 in the UCL for Barcelona, Messi was the team’s best performer). He was unable to win a UCL at PSG before Mbappé’s emergence and Messi’s arrival, and watched from the bench due to injury as they crashed out this year.

Neymar 2014-15 Barcelona

If I ran a poll, and I asked where a player who accrued G+A like Ronaldo while progressing the ball, dribbling, and creating like Messi would rank all time, most people would probably assume that that player is the GOAT - or, at the very least, the best of their generation. Now, it should probably be noted here that Messi has accrued G+A at a significantly higher rate than both, but that’s besides the point. 

Here’s the point: Neymar, somehow, has ended up as one of the most underrated players in the sport in my time as a football fan. Are we seriously so far gone into trophy logic and goal tallying that we can’t appreciate one of the finest to ever do it? Neymar scores goals, even if it’s not quite at peak Messi-Ronaldo levels, and he assists goals. But he’s so much more than that. We’re watching an artist, every week. 

I want people to understand this situation. Here we have a player, 31 years old and easily one of the best in the world, churning out goals and assists like an all-time great while simultaneously showing his creative genius on the pitch every match, and we barely acknowledge it. Neymar was arguably the best player in the world in 2017-18. Messi and Ronaldo being as good as they were for as long as they were has made people think Neymar is a disappointment for not scoring 60 goals in a season. I resent that. Neymar’s got a chance to end up having the 2nd-best CV of his generation, but most people barely acknowledge him beyond the fact that he’s really good.

I just can’t accept that. He’s not just really good. He’s something else. We’re watching an all-time great, and nobody seems to have a clue. 

In 20 years, when Neymar is long since retired, people are going to go back and watch Messi highlights. They’ll watch Ronaldo highlights. And they’ll watch Neymar highlights. They’ll look at the numbers. Then, they’ll wonder how they ever thought of a player of his caliber as anything less than extraordinary.

Football is a sport, but it’s also an art form, and Neymar is simply one of the greatest artists we’ve ever seen. He’s so good and so special to watch that he managed to finish 10th in the 2011 Ballon D’or - AS A 19-YEAR-OLD PLAYING FOR SANTOS! In the Brazilian league! Neymar’s play and artistry was so spectacular that he was ranked as a top 10 player in the world, at 19, without ever setting foot in Europe. It boggles my mind that people don’t understand that. He won the Puskas award in 2011, then finished runner up in 2012. He was one of the biggest stars in the world before he ever sniffed the Camp Nou and broke through in Europe.

Young Neymar at Santos in Brazil

All he has done since then is tally goals and assists at a per-90 rate comparable to Cristiano Ronaldo, make Europe’s best defenders look silly with the ball, and get continually disrespected.

I think it’s time for the Neymar discourse to change. He’s almost 31 years old, and still playing like the best in the world when he’s healthy. And I firmly believe that when you look at his resume and what he has done, it’s hard to argue you aren’t watching one of the best of all time.

No, he isn’t Messi. He probably won’t retire ahead of Ronaldo. He’s not Pelé or Maradona. Puskás probably has a better CV.

But beyond that? Is there really any argument beyond team success that Neymar doesn’t rank right behind those guys? Okay, sure, he’s never won with Brazil. It certainly isn’t his fault. Time and again, Neymar delivers. He scored in every round of the knockouts for Barcelona in the 2014/15 UCL triumph. He dragged Barca back from an insurmountable deficit against PSG in 2016/17. He’s had several brilliant performances in key UCL matches with PSG. I covered his Brazil career already. Frankly, Neymar is a Thibaut Courtois wonder save away from already being considered a top-10 player of all time, because Brazil probably go on to win that tournament if that ends up in the back of the net.

Every time the sport has knocked Neymar down, he’s gotten back up. Injury after injury after backbreaking loss, the man continues to do what he does best: go out on the pitch and put on a show.

I’ve been lucky to witness some brilliant players in my lifetime. I witnessed 2 of the greatest to ever play the sport, including almost undoubtedly the greatest player I will ever have the pleasure to watch. I’ve seen Luis Suárez, Luka Modrić and Sergio Ramos, Xavi and Iniesta, even Kylian Mbappé.

Outside of Messi and Ronaldo, Neymar’s better than all of them. Statistically, visually, however you want to look at it - he’s elite. He’s always been elite. Considering what he’s done, and the era in which he’s done it, there’s probably an argument that he’s at worst the 3rd-best player to ever live. I’m not going to make that argument, I’m simply saying that it could be made. It’s time to give Neymar his respect.

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