For Neymar, the events of the past week must feel like an especially haunting instance of déjà vu. Once again, the Paris Saint-Germain superstar came up lame in the middle of a match after a not especially horrific clash. Once again, further tests revealed the injury to be worse than it first seemed, yet another fracture in the fifth metatarsal of his right foot. And once again, that injury threatens to not only essentially ruin PSG’s season, but also to deal another blow to the chances of Neymar’s career turning out the way he dreamed it would.
Last Wednesday, one of the many opposing players not fit to hold Neymar’s jockstrap got so perturbed by Neymar’s casually soul-crushing dominance that he lashed out like little brat and decided to kick Neymar in the foot a few times. Neymar had to come off the pitch thanks to his asshole opponent’s paroxysm of impotent rage—though not before he undressed his inferior with one of the most humiliating skill moves in the sport—and after the match PSG’s doctors discovered what was wrong. Neymar had suffered another blow to a bone in his foot, the same one he cracked last season, the recovery from which saw him miss the biggest game of PSG’s season and even threatened to keep him out of last summer’s World Cup.
PSG’s medical team, in conjunction with their counterparts with the Brazil national team, got together this week to reassess the damage after the foot had time to stabilize. Today, the club announced the full extent of the injury and their course of action: while, unlike last season’s injury, Neymar will not undergo surgery, he is scheduled to be out of commission for 10 weeks.
The timing couldn’t be much worse. The 10 weeks Neymar is set to miss include both legs of the Parisiens’ round of 16 Champions League tie against Manchester United. The situation is eerily similar to last season, when Neymar’s foot trouble came right before the second leg of PSG’s knockout round matchup against Real Madrid, one PSG would ultimately lose. The French club does have enough talent to get past United, though the Red Devils are much improved since firing José Mourinho, and you’d probably still make PSG favorites to go through. Even if PSG do get past United, if Neymar’s prognosis is accurate, the 10 weeks will be up in the first week of April, just a week before the Champions League quarterfinals start. Who knows what kind of shape or form Neymar will be in at that point. Be it this round or the next, it’s hard to envision PSG getting too far in the only competition that really matters to them with an absent or rusty Neymar.
The stakes here are so big for PSG and Neymar because of how highly leveraged both parties are on Champions League success. Because PSG are so much better—they currently sit 13 points clear of second-place Lille in the league table, and PSG have played two fewer matches than Lille—and richer than all their domestic opponents, what the club does in Ligue 1 play is essentially irrelevant. The only thing that differentiates a good PSG season from a bad one is how they do in the Champions League.
For the same reasons, all the gaudy stats and highlight plays Neymar amasses in Ligue 1 mean nothing if they aren’t accompanied by Champions League success. Neymar left Barcelona two seasons ago to take on the responsibility of leading a club to greatness as the club’s singular protagonist, to prove his individual greatness through team success, and to be acknowledged for it all with awards like the Ballon d’Or. Though his play in Paris has validated his greatness, without team and individual silverware to consecrate it, he will never achieve the place in history he ventured out from Brazil and Spain to attain. There are only a few matches every year when Neymar gets the opportunity to make the case for his transcendental talent in front of the world; just like last year, this season might end without him even making it onto the stage when the lights go down.
To make the similarities to last year’s injury even more uncanny, there is also an international element at play. This summer, Brazil will host the Copa América, the premier South American international tournament. If Brazil were to win that competition, Neymar could take a deep breath of relief knowing he’d at least accomplished one of his biggest goals in the form of bringing Brazil a major trophy. Last year, it was the promise of World Cup success that could’ve more or less obviated his Champions League failure, though Brazil ultimately came up short there as well. This foot injury, should it prove more stubborn than the doctors predict or if it eventually does requires surgery, could theoretically either hobble him for or keep him out of the Copa entirely. Even if he plays in the Copa and doesn’t win it, the pressure to start winning big trophies for club and country is sure to hit a mind-melting intensity. And let’s not even think about whether this second consecutive injury to the exact same bone is evidence of a chronic foot problem.
Neymar is one of the best players to ever play the sport, will probably hang up his boots as the Brazil national team’s all-time leading scorer, and is the only player to emerge over the past decade whose earth-quaking impact on the pitch approaches the Richter scale-breaking force of Ronaldo and Messi. When he goes to watch his PSG teammates attempt to salvage their season—and, to a certain extent, to salvage his latest chance to cement his individual legacy—Neymar will have just turned 27 years old. That is still young enough for Neymar to win more than enough trophies and accolades and awards to canonize himself as an all-time great of the stature it’s long been assumed he’d become. It’s also old enough to make the question of Neymar’s ultimate ascendence transition from being a matter of when to a matter of if.