Screenshot: PSG vs. Marseille

Neymar went down in a heap in the latter stages of PSG’s big 3-0 rivalry victory over Marseille on Sunday. Neymar going down didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary, and the non-contact incident that brought him to the grass—a rolled right ankle—didn’t look all that bad on replay. Neymar’s response, though, laying there on the pitch and openly sobbing before getting stretchered off, told a different story:

Despite some initial optimism right after the match, it appears Neymar’s understanding of the injury was right: it’s a pretty serious one. Just how serious is something we still won’t know for a couple days, but even in the best case scenario Neymar’s foot problems look almost certain to keep him out of the single most defining match of PSG’s season.

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After the match, PSG manager Unai Emery was cautiously optimistic that Neymar’s ankle problem wouldn’t necessarily keep him out of the second leg of the team’s enormous Champions League tie against Real Madrid. The preliminary x-ray didn’t reveal any broken bones in the Brazilian’s foot, and that bit of good news was the primary basis of Emery’s hope.

Yesterday, however, PSG discovered upon further inspection Neymar not only had sprained his ankle, but also suffered a slight crack in one of the bones of his foot. Immediately, concern turned to how long this would take to heal. An initial report from Globo Esporte, a trustworthy Brazilian sports news source with a line in on Neymar’s camp, said the two injuries would keep Neymar off the field for a month—not a terribly long absence, but a potentially devastating one nonetheless, as it would rule him out for next Tuesday’s Real Madrid match.

Today, Globo has another report with an even worse prognosis than before. This time, their report claims Neymar’s foot needs surgery to insert a pin in the cracked bone, and that recovery from that would keep him out for two months. By their timetable he’d only return in May, ready for the final couple matches of the Ligue 1 season and potentially the second leg of the Champions League semifinals if PSG make it that far. He would have just a month and a handful of matches to round into form for this summer’s World Cup.

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Emery has since pushed back on Globo’s reporting. He clarified that, contrary to the Globo report, the club and Neymar have yet to make a determination about whether or not surgery is necessary. While admitting it was only a “small chance” that Neymar’s foot would be healed in time to allow him to take the pitch against Real next week, he did hold out hope for it. Still, surgery or no, it’s almost impossible to imagine Neymar rebounding from a sprain and a fractured metatarsal by Tuesday.

Which, for PSG, for Emery, and especially Neymar, really fucking sucks. Real Madrid beat up on PSG pretty good in the first leg, winning 3-1 at home. But PSG are by no means out of the tie. A 2-0 win in the return leg is—or at least was—perfectly plausible. Securing that scoreline would’ve seen the Paris club through to the next round. With forwards like Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, PSG had more than enough firepower to overcome the first leg deficit. Without the services of their brightest star, the second-best player on the whole planet, PSG’s already slim odds of going through plummet.

It’s not impossible to imagine PSG knocking out Real next week without Neymar. Coming in for him will most likely be Ángel Di María, who is a very good player in his own right and has been great this season in the starts he’s managed to snatch away from the big three. Even a Neymar-less PSG would be favored to beat many of the remaining Champions League teams. But, to use a quote from Emery, that feels like a “small chance,” as do PSG’s odds of making it through the quarterfinals and into the second leg of the semifinals when Neymar could presumably return if he does wind up having surgery.

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For Emery to maintain hope both that by some miracle Neymar somehow is fit and ready for the Madrid match and, if not, that PSG could still make it past the back-to-back reigning UCL title holders makes sense. After all, it’s all but guaranteed that a loss against Real would mean a loss of Emery’s job. After a terrible first season in Ligue 1 play in which PSG did what they should never, under no circumstances ever do, which is lose the league title to anyone else, and the soul-sucking Champions League debacle against Barcelona, PSG’s ownership rightfully demanded huge success from Emery this season.

A league title and a Champions League semifinal were by all reports the PSG board’s minimum expectations this year after they spent so much money bringing in Neymar and Mbappé. PSG, as they always should be, are locks to win the league, even though their play hasn’t been as fluid as it should. For all Emery’s abilities as a manager, he has still yet to come up with any kind of an offensive system that centers on and makes life easier for his best player. These systemic flaws in the style of play he’s implemented this season go a long way toward explaining why PSG aren’t hitting on all cylinders in the league, and why they couldn’t be considered favorites in European play. Even if Emery inspires the troops to fight their way to victory against Real Madrid, anything other than at least a semifinal spot would and should result in his firing.

But Emery will be fine no matter what happens. He’s still well-regarded for his stints at Valencia and Sevilla, and he’ll get another good job after the PSG one. For Neymar, the stakes are much higher.

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The express purpose of Neymar leaving Barcelona to join PSG was for him to have a team of his own—something that would not have happened at Barcelona for many years, if ever—with which he could continue to grow as a player and leader and realize his goal of being the greatest player in the world. The emblem of this ascent from out of the shadows of Cristiano Ronaldo and, most directly, his old teammate, Lionel Messi, was to be the Ballon d’Or. The only thing is, by leaving a world-famous club like Barça and a competitive league like La Liga in favor of a well-known but barely followed club like PSG and the one-horse race that is Ligue 1, he ensured that, in the minds of the overwhelming majority of the soccer world, the entirety of his seasons would be defined by just a handful of high-profile matches.

Outside of the visual impressiveness of his gaudy stats when you glance at them, nothing Neymar does in league play matters a lick. Ligue 1 isn’t one of the two or three most-followed leagues internationally (number one is obviously the Premier League, and the next two are La Liga and Serie A, probably in that order). There are probably at least ten clubs that are much more closely monitored by soccer fans around the world than PSG. The only time the soccer world’s collective eye would focus all on Neymar are the big Champions League matches like the ones against Real Madrid. In an effort to escape Messi’s shadow, to finally have the light all to himself, Neymar might’ve ended up staking out a spot on the stage where the spotlight rarely reaches.

And now Neymar is set to miss one of the only times this season when that spotlight would’ve been pointed squarely on Paris, tracking his every moment. If Real do what they should and progress to the next round, then it’ll be the last time the spotlight turns his way for the rest of the season. No matter how high Neymar manages to pile up his stats in France by the end of the season—and they’re legitimately mountainous already; he’s currently sitting on 19 goals and 13 assists in just 20 Ligue 1 appearances—getting bumped from the Champions League in the first knockout round will absolutely preclude him from winning the next Ballon d’Or. That is, unless he can win the World Cup.

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Brazil’s chances there are as good as anyone else’s in the competition. By leading his country to the biggest trophy in all of sports this summer, Neymar would immediately cement himself as a legend of the game. Success in the summer would serve as proof that he was right to switch Barcelona for Paris, that he’d formally realized his destiny by becoming an all-time great, and would make the debate surrounding who should be recognized as the best player in the world a serious one for the first time in ages.

The future is uncertain, of course, and there’s no reason why Neymar can’t still achieve each and every goal he’s set for himself. This injury sucks, and the timing is even worse, but he’ll heal and get back to the pitch and do what he’s always done. He might not win the Ballon d’Or this year, but it’s hard to see him not nabbing at least one of the next five—whether he wins it while playing in Paris or somewhere else. He very well could win the World Cup in the summer, and even if he doesn’t, he should still have one more shot at one while still in his prime. That’s all to say, Neymar’s future is still as blindingly bright as it has been for some time.

And yet it’s still hard to see Neymar crying so profusely there on the pitch this weekend and not feel like those tears might be for something other than just the physical pain. For the first time probably ever, there are legitimate reasons to doubt whether Neymar will ever actually realize the script that’s been laid out for him since back when he was just a promising, buzz cut-sporting teen playing for Santos. Maybe Neymar senses this, too, and in the mix of the pain shooting through his foot and the fear about the injury’s severity and what that severity might mean for his short and long term future, maybe he couldn’t help but weep for the dream we’ve all believed in for so long yet might not quite align with reality.